The title of the letter was meant to provoke: “Scientific yellow journalism.”
As the authors wrote:
Today, more than ever before, the importance of conducting responsible research is vital. New mass media technologies, allowing for the rapid distribution of news, enable researchers across the world to publicize their latest discoveries to a vast audience. The problem arises when inconclusive research is disseminated, with results that are exaggerated, misinterpreted or even fabricated. We, as scientists, have a responsibility to be brutally critical toward our own research, as well as that of our colleagues. Unfortunately, due to the system of publishing fast, often and in high-impact factor journals, scientists are under greater pressure to produce quantity, at the expense of research quality.
This problem of exaggerating results is especially evident in the field of environmental toxicology, where reports about chemicals, often incorporated in plastics used for food packaging, beauty products, children’s toys and baby products are broadcast on a daily basis to an audience that is unfamiliar with the actual studies behind these reports and the “traditions in toxicological research” of overdosing animals to extreme levels in order to obtain an effect. We certainly cannot claim that chemicals are not dangerous—many of them are—but scaring the public with continuous press releases based on dubious results is not only irresponsible but, similar to the boy who cried wolf, it can only serve to obstruct the entire field when the public grows weary of the never ending alarms, later rescinded because more responsible research is finally performed.
Therefore, it is critical that responsible research is performed, studies are thoroughly executed using various model systems—with a critical approach and doses that are more representative of environmental exposures—and we are sure of our results before going public.
We, and, we’re guessing, most of our readers would agree with this assessment — especially the sentence: “Unfortunately, due to the system of publishing fast, often and in high-impact factor journals, scientists are under greater pressure to produce quantity, at the expense of research quality.”
But, as Klockars found out, introspection was not all that she stimulated. A supervisor (whom she asked us not to identify) objected to the tone of the piece, and insisted that Klockars retract the comment.
The following article from Small GTPases, “Scientific Yellow Journalism” by Anica Klockars and Michael J. Williams, published online on 20 September 2012 (doi: 10.4161/sgtp.22289; http://www.landesbioscience.com/journals/smallgtpases/article/22289/) by Landes Bioscience and subsequently published in print in Small GTPases 2012 3(4):201 has been retracted by agreement between the authors and the journal’s Editor in Chief …
We felt that was fairly ironic, as irony goes. And Klockars agreed:
I think science definitely suffers a lot from the way it is funded. If you can only get grants by publishing as fast as possible, you will most likely not stop and think about what would be great studies – you will just publish something and probably even “adjust” your data in order to publish fast. This is the whole reason why I wrote the comment. I read too many really bad papers, with results that really don’t say anything, and worst of all: newspaper articles are often based on these inconclusive papers, exaggerating the findings in ridiculous ways and spreading alarming news that hasn’t even really been proven scientifically. So I got the opportunity to raise my concern in an editor’s corner.