Nearly three years ago, our co-founders Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus penned a column in Lab Times suggesting ways for readers to report alleged scientific misconduct. They are now retracting that advice.
In the retracted column, they suggested initially contacting the editor of the journal that published the potentially problematic work, and if the editor suggests it, contact the authors of that work. In their latest column for Lab Times, Oransky and Marcus say: Forget that advice.
Three years later, after observing cover-ups, being berated by select lawyers and speaking to people intimately involved in misconduct investigations, we’ve realised that we were wrong. In keeping with some of the honest retraction notices we see, we offer apologies to the scientific community.
Here’s why: Contacting authors before anyone else knows about potential issues in their work, only serves to give unethical scientists time to hide their tracks – and let’s face it, those who are actually guilty of misconduct probably don’t have any scruples about covering up the evidence of that misconduct. That will make it much more difficult for universities and oversight agencies to investigate cases properly.
Instead of first approaching editors, they now recommend contacting the relevant people at the authors’ institution:
While we’d like to be able to say that we find all journal editors responsive to allegations, there are still too many who rebuff efforts to correct the literature, which means they aren’t ideal first ports of call either. That leaves the right answer: research integrity officers, or the equivalent, at the institutions where the authors in question work.
We realise that some would-be whistleblowers have little faith in institutional investigations and, where possible, outside organisations responsible for research oversight – say, the Office of Research Integrity, in the United States – are another option. Keep in mind, however, that many of these organisations are required to allow institutions to perform their own investigations first. There is, however, a paper trail, at least, and sometimes much more muscle than that.
They also add some other advice: Try PubPeer, a site where commenters can post anonymously about concerns related to published work.
It’s a proper retraction — go to the original article, and you’ll see it’s now marked clearly as “RETRACTED,” with a note directing readers to the latest column. Oransky and Marcus say they’re glad to have the opportunity to make the fix:
Whistleblowing and critiquing others’ work is, after all, complicated. We’re glad to have the chance to retract some of our previous advice and update it, as new evidence comes to light. That’s what self-correction is all about, right?
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