How to report allegations of scientific misconduct
Given the subject of Retraction Watch, readers often email us with papers they’d like us to look into, whether for alleged image manipulation, potential plagiarism or duplication, or other issues. As we explain in question five of our FAQ, we don’t have the resources to do such investigations, unfortunately; we can’t even keep up with all of the actual retractions.
Other sites, such as Science Fraud and Abnormal Science, have tried to fill that gap, and a number of the papers those sites questioned have been retracted. But Abnormal Science is on a long hiatus, and Science Fraud was of course shuttered by legal threats last month. So with that in mind — and also because we also get emails asking the best way to report alleged misconduct — our new LabTimes column is a stepwise guide for those who have concerns about papers that they’d like to see addressed. Based on our reporting of retractions for two and a half years, we try to answer questions we often answer in emails such as, where to start? And where to turn if those first contacts aren’t responsive?
We recognize that many scientists have become justifiably impatient with a self-correction mechanism that moves slowly:
[We] want to gently suggest that following stepwise procedures – no matter how much it makes you gnash your teeth, nor how many times you’ve been frustrated by complaints that vanish into a black hole – will only help you in the long run. Leaving a paper trail – or more likely an electronic trail nowadays – will demonstrate to people further up the food chain that you’re serious and that you’ve exhausted all other options before you got to them.
And tone is important:
Try to resist the temptation to take out your frustrations in personal attacks against the editors or authors with whom you’re corresponding. While you’ll sometimes still get the results you want that way, we haven’t seen a single case where it did much good and we’ve seen lots of cases where it gave adversaries an excuse – not necessarily one we’d endorse, but an excuse nonetheless – to ignore future missives. Stick to the evidence, and approach it scientifically, starting with your subject line. “Requesting an investigation” is much better than anything including the word “fraud,” for example.
And respecting due process — or in this case, the scientific version of it — is critical:
Finally, keep a paraphrase of the famous quote in mind: Never attribute to malice what can be explained by human error. You may have found a big whopper of a mistake in a paper, but that doesn’t automatically mean it was misconduct. We know this can be a long and frustrating process, and that cronyism can protect obvious fraud – but the scientific version of due process is just as important as the legal one.
We hope the column will be an evergreen resource for those looking to help the scientific record correct itself.