Why write a blog about retractions?
Post by Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus
The unfolding drama of Anil Potti — a Duke researcher who posed as a Rhodes Scholar and appears to have invented key statistical analyses in a study of how breast cancer responds to chemotherapy — has sent ripples of angst through the cancer community. Potti’s antics prompted editors of The Lancet Oncology to issue an “expression of concern” — a Britishism that might be better expressed as “Holy Shit!” — about the validity of a 2007 paper in their journal by Potti and others.
Unlike newspapers, which strive for celerity as much as accuracy, science journals have the luxury of time. Thorough vetting, through editorial boards, peer reviewers and other filters, is the coin of the realm.
And yet mistakes happen. Sometimes these slips are merely technical, requiring nothing more than an erratum notice calling attention to a backwards figure or an incorrect address for reprints. Less often but far more important are the times when the blunders require that an entire article be pulled. For a glossary of the spectrum between erratum and retraction — including expression of concern — see this piece, commissioned by one of us, Ivan, while he was at The Scientist.
Retractions are born of many mothers. Fraud is the most titillating reason, and mercifully the most rare, but when it happens the results can be devastating. Consider the case of Scott Reuben, a prodigiously dishonest anesthesiologist whose fabrications led to the retraction of more than a score of papers and deeply rattled an entire medical specialty. (One of us, Adam, broke that story.)
So why write a blog on retractions?
First, science takes justifiable pride in the fact that it is self-correcting — most of the time. Usually, that just means more or better data, not fraud or mistakes that would require a retraction. But when a retraction is necessary, how long does that self-correction take? The Wakefield retraction, for example, was issued 12 years after the original study, and six years after serious questions had been raised publicly by journalist Andrew Brian Deer. (Thanks to commenter Tutak for letting us know about this error.) Retractions are therefore a window into the scientific process.
Second, retractions are not often well-publicized. Sure, there are the high-profile cases such as Reuben’s and Wakefield’s. But most retractions live in obscurity in Medline and other databases. That means those who funded the retracted research — often taxpayers — aren’t particularly likely to find out about them. Nor are investors always likely to hear about retractions on basic science papers whose findings may have formed the basis for companies into which they pour dollars. So we hope this blog will form an informal repository for the retractions we find, and might even spur the creation of a retraction database such as the one called for here by K.M Korpela.
Third, they’re often the clues to great stories about fraud or other malfeasance, as Adam learned when he chased down the Reuben story. The reverse can also be true. The Cancer Letter’s expose of Potti and his fake Rhodes Scholarship is what led his co-authors to remind The Lancet Oncology of their concerns, and then the editors to issue their expression of concern. And they can even lead to lawsuits for damaged reputations. If highlighting retractions will give journalists more tools to uncover fraud and misuse of funds, we’re happy to help. And if those stories are appropriate for our respective news outlets, you’ll only read about them on Retraction Watch once we’ve covered them there.
Finally, we’re interested in whether journals are consistent. How long do they wait before printing a retraction? What requires one? How much of a public announcement, if any, do they make? Does a journal with a low rate of retractions have a better peer review and editing process, or is it just sweeping more mistakes under the rug?
These are the sorts of things we’ll cover when we write about a particular retraction, and we hope they’ll form the basis of larger discussions of the obligations of journals. The two of us — both with experience covering science and medicine for the consumer as well as trade press — seem to come across these issues often. The experience one of us, Ivan, has had with Embargo Watch suggests that a blog is a great forum for such conversations. While any particular Retraction Watch post will only carry one of our bylines, we will both contribute to all posts.
A few researchers have studied the issues we plan to raise here. For example, a 2008 paper in the Journal of Medical Ethics found that “the rate of retractions remains low but is increasing” and that:
Although retractions are on average occurring sooner after publication than in the past, citation analysis shows that they are not being recognised by subsequent users of the work. Findings suggest that editors and institutional officials are taking more responsibility for correcting the scientific record but that reasons published in the retraction notice are not always reliable. More aggressive means of notification to the scientific community appear to be necessary.
Those sound like great arguments for Retraction Watch.