We tend to focus on new retractions here at Retraction Watch, and find it difficult enough to even keep up with the hundreds per year. But sometimes it’s illuminating to take a dip into history, so when Richard van Noorden alerted us to what may be the earliest-ever English language retraction, we thought we’d take a look.
The notice appeared in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society on June 24, 1756. It reads:
I think it necessary to retract an opinion concerning the explication of the Leyden experiment, which I troubled this Society with in the year 1746, and afterwards published more at large in a Treatise upon Electicity, in the year 1750; as I have lately made some farther discoveries relative to that experiment, and the minus electricity of Mr. Franklin, which shew I was then mistaken in my notions about it.
What I mean by the minus electricity of Mr. Franklin, regards the minus electricity of the Leyden experiment only, which that gentleman discovered.
I shall be very glad to have this acknowledgment made public, and to answer that end the effectually, I wish that it may have a place in the Transactions of the Royal Society.
“Mr. Franklin” is, of course, Benjamin Franklin. According to the Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography, Wilson was perhaps best known outside of the Royal Society for
public controversy with Franklin on the question of whether lightning conductors should be round or pointed at the top. Wilson held that “thunder rods” should be round-headed,for, recognizing quite correctly that a pointed metal rod attracts lighting, he believed that if these lightning…rods were erected on buildings, they would actually cause the lightning to strike.
Wilson’s colleagues did not look kindly on his approach to resolving the dispute:
Finally, in July 1777, Wilson arranged a huge demonstration before King George III in the Pantheon in Oxford Street. He certainly convinced the king, who declared that Wilson’s arguments were sufficient to persuade the apple–women in the street. The scientific world took a different view, for Wilson had continued the dispute beyond the bounds of reason, and the editors of the abridgment of the Philosophical Transactions were strongly critical: “But he has been chiefly distinguished as the ostensible person whose perverse conduct in the affair of the conductors of lightning produced such shameful discord and dissensions in the Royal Society, as continued for many years after, to the great detriment of science” (The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Abridged, 1755 to 1763, XI (London, 1809],p. 15).
Still, the retraction doesn’t seem to have harmed Wilson’s career. The Royal Society had already made him a Fellow in 1751 on the strength of his work, including the Treatise on Electricity, and in 1756 they gave him the Copley Medal.
Credit for finding this retraction belongs to Jeffrey Furman, Kyle Jensen, and Fiona Murray, who came across it while working on a new paper in Research Policy on the effects of retractions. Here are the main conclusions of the paper, which is worth a read:
Our findings suggest that attention is a key predictor of retraction – retracted articles arise most frequently among highly-cited articles. The retraction system is expeditious in uncovering knowledge that is ever determined to be false (the mean time to retraction is less than two years) and democratic (retraction is not systematically affected by author prominence). Lastly, retraction causes an immediate, severe, and long-lived decline in future citations.
That last quoted line is a reassuring bit of context for the work of John Budd, who has found in two studies that the vast majority of citations of retracted papers don’t mention that they’ve been removed from the literature. If Furman et al’s finding that retractions are linked to a 65% decrease in citations holds up, it means the effect of that kind of oversight isn’t quite as bad as it could be.
Furman says the Wilson notice is the earliest they could find in English, but the team suspects there are earlier ones, whether in English or not. He’d love to hear from Retraction Watch readers who uncover older notices, and so would we.