The University of British Columbia (UBC) is home to two of the most infamous anti-vaccine “researchers” in the world – Christopher Shaw and Lucija Tomljenovic. Shaw and Tomljenovic have a notorious history of retracted articles, reprimands, and pushing a pseudoscience in their search to publish misinformation about vaccines. Finally, after their latest article was retracted shortly after publication, UBC responded to the harsh criticism of what appears to be malfeasance.
There have been a lot of comments on various articles about this retraction as to why UBC continues to employ Shaw and Tomljenovic. They must be an embarrassment to the university, yet many reports show that UBC supports them. Anti-vaccine radicals frequently make an argument from authority, claiming that Shaw and Tomljenovic are legitimate researchers because they are at the University of British Columbia.
So UBC keeps a pair of researchers who do harm to children of the world, by making unsupported claims about the safety of vaccines. They represent a clear and present danger to the health of humans.
The only thing I should have read is that “UBC responded to the latest retraction, and terminated their relationship to Shaw and Tomljenovic.” Well, I wish.
The foul history of Shaw and Tomljenovic
Let’s start right at the beginning. Shaw and Tomljenovic are not immunologists. They are not epidemiologists. They are not virologists or microbiologists. In fact, neither has any training in any area related to vaccines, yet they continue to publish about vaccines as if they are experts. They are demonstrably not experts in vaccines based on their high rate of retracted published articles.
Shaw holds an academic appointment as a professor in the Department of Ophthalmology at the University of British Columbia. Shaw does claim he’s a neuroscientist, but his research focus is in on amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and the ALS-parkinsonism dementia complex, not autism. Tomljenovic is a postdoctoral research fellow in the same department. Again, I cannot stress this enough, this gives them zero credibility in vaccine research.
Shaw and Tomljenovic have had their “research” utterly discredited by the World Health Organization. And UBC responded by “standing by them.” The UBC associate vice-president research and international, said the school “holds dear the value of academic freedom that allows faculty to challenge any and all established conventions.”
Sure, that makes sense in real scientific research. But Shaw and Tomljenovic are pushing pseudoscience at best, and outright fabrications at worst. They are convinced that aluminum in vaccines is dangerous, yet have never been able to provide evidence that supports that ridiculous claim.
Shaw and Tomljenovic’s research has been paid by the Dwoskin Family Foundation, one of the most profoundly anti-vaccine sponsors of research in the world. Claire Dwoskin is a board member of the anti-vaccine group, the National Vaccination Information Center. In 2011, the Dwoskins also underwrote the anti-vaccine “safety” conference in Jamaica, which included as speakers, Shaw and Tomljenovic. In other words, these two researchers with zero credentials in vaccines, are supported and biased by anti-vaccine funding. Yet, UBC responded with nothing. I guess UBC doesn’t really care where their funding is sourced, as long as its money.
And the recent retraction of a paper by Shaw and Tomljenovic is not the first. They actually have quite a history in retracted anti-vaccine articles. Last year, they wrote an article about aluminum adjuvants in the HPV vaccine – it was retracted, and eventually republished almost word-for-word in an inferior journal. And once again UBC responded with nothing.
How UBC responded
First, UBC stated that this was a matter of academic freedom, and the two researchers could basically write pseudoscience if they so wished. Gail Murphy, UBC’s vice-president of research and innovation, stated that the university “holds dear the value of academic freedom,” that is, the researchers have the “freedom” to explore research that may go against the established scientific consensus. But no one is criticizing Shaw and Tomljenovic on academic freedom grounds – they are being essentially accused of malfeasance by many people, as a result of observations that some (if not all) of the data appears to be altered.
Murphy goes on to say that UBC does not endorse any faculty member’s research findings, adding that, “it is up to the scientific community to evaluate research through the peer review process.” Well, the scientific community has spoken loudly about what they think of this research..
But Murphy fails to address the consequences of Shaw and Tomljenovic’s pseudoscience – their research is used by the anti-vaccine world to falsely point at the dangers of vaccines. And by creating this false narrative, that has been completely debunked scientifically, they are putting people in harm’s way. UBC can hide like cowards behind the veil of “academic freedom,” but they’re missing the point. The research from Shaw and Tomljenovic is dangerous.
Sadly, Shaw and Tomljenovic are trying to throw one of their co-authors under the figurative bus. Shaw said the lead author on the 2017 retracted paper, Dr. Dan Li, “took her notebooks and original images from the lab when she left in 2015. This is totally against UBC, and hence lab, policy.” Now, this is a significant issue, if true. To prevent charges and accusations of doctored research, all original data needs to stay with the research lab.
However, this seems like a convenient accusation. And it still doesn’t clear Christopher Shaw from some huge problems – as the last author on the paper, by convention, he is the head of the lab that produced the research. He is responsible for the research. And he should have reviewed the data more carefully, but then again, Shaw has no expertise in DNA sequencing.
In case you’re wondering, Tomljenovic claimed that she did not review the article before publication. This is a ridiculous statement, since all researchers’ credibility rests on their publications, everyone reviews papers carefully. To have your name on a paper, even if it appears to be a courtesy authorship, is no excuse to not review the contents, carefully.
Finally, after being ridiculed across the scientific community for mishandling Shaw and Tomljenovic’s research, UBC responded with some movement towards investigating them. Gail Murphy stated that UBC “takes the responsible conduct of research very seriously.” According to the report, she said she can’t comment on individual accusations of scholarly misconduct but that allegations are “thoroughly investigated.” She concluded her statement by saying, “if misconduct is determined, the university takes steps to address it,”
Christopher Shaw and Lucija Tomljenovic are not competent vaccine researchers – they lack any credentials that would give them credibility about vaccines. Their continued insistence, without legitimate data, that vaccines or one of their ingredients is unsafe is based on pseudoscience.
This isn’t some academic or philosophical issue. Vaccines save lives with only very tiny risks. But Shaw and Tomljenovic, and by extension the University of British Columbia, are supporting a narrative that vaccines are unsafe. These researchers and UBC are responsible for every person who is harmed because they refuse vaccines as a result of this pseudoscience.
The University of British Columbia has to show some scientific integrity and terminate their relationship with these two pseudoscientists. Don’t hide behind some nonsense about academic freedom – I don’t think that concept means that bad or possibly faked research is protected.
But I doubt anything will happen. It’s almost impossible to remove faculty members of major universities, even when they promote junk science. We’ll probably be critiquing bad “vaccine research” from the University of British Columbia for many years to come.
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