Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

“My dog ate the data:” Eight excuses journal editors hear

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As a journal editor, are you tired of hearing the same excuses from authors who are facing allegations of problematic data? If so, you’re not alone.

Recently, an editor of the journal Oncogene co-authored an editorial in the journal listing the types of excuses he often hears — and why none of them is valid. Writing the article with editor Justin Stebbing of Imperial College/Imperial Healthcare NHS Trust is David Sanders of Purdue University. Sanders himself has raised allegations of misconduct against a cancer researcher (and is currently being sued for defamation as a result).

Here are the problematic excuses they encounter:

  • Nothing to see here. Move along.’ This excuse comes from authors who can’t stop denying there are problems with their paper, even in the face of overwhelming evidence.
  • My dog ate the data.’ The “missing data” excuse makes more sense once a significant amount of time has passed since the paper was published, Stebbing and Sanders write.
  • If you look hard enough, you can find a trivial difference between two supposedly duplicated images.’ Um, not really, say Stebbing and Sanders — image processing can introduce artifacts, for instance. And even if there are minor differences, how can images with distinct origins be so similar?
  • It was the fault of a junior researcher.’ This could be true — but if so, why didn’t anyone else notice?
  • The responsible researcher is from another country and therefore unfamiliar with the standards expected in scientific publications.’ This excuse is “highly insulting” to researchers from other countries, Stebbing and Sanders note. And if the practices are so problematic, why didn’t the researcher’s supervisor school him or her on proper procedures?
  • It was only a control experiment.’ The authors note: “How many scientists have not had an unexpected result in a ‘control’ experiment that actually led to some insight? If control experiments were unimportant, why were they included in the article in the first place?”
  • The results have been replicated by ourselves or others, so the image manipulation is irrelevant.’
  • Someone is out to get me.’ Stebbing and Sanders write: “Perhaps true but irrelevant.”

We contacted Sanders to ask more about what prompted the editorial. He told us they wrote the article together after Sanders approached Stebbing about the idea:

It appears that many journals are facing issues of problematic images and plagiarism. We wanted to assure editors at other journals that these are shared experiences and to fortify them in their confrontations with authors who engage in specious reasoning.  

We asked about the types of responses that all seemed to suggest the problems didn’t matter. For instance, Stebbing and Sanders said they hear authors argue “The results have been replicated by ourselves or others, so the image manipulation is irrelevant,” or “It was only a control experiment.” We asked Sanders why such logic is problematic:

Some researchers are product oriented. The ends justify the means. If overall the article is correct, the fact that details are flawed is irrelevant. The career reward system (grant funding, promotion, awards, etc.) favors productivity at all costs rather than solicitousness. If you have succeeded by ignoring the norms of scientific practice, you will minimize their importance.

This attitude is problematic, because the details are critical in scientific endeavor. Control experiments ARE experiments and are therefore important. Furthermore, knowingly falsifying data undermines confidence in the scientific enterprise. The ends do not justify the means. Finally, researchers who are violating scientific norms are receiving resources that are thereby being denied to those who adhere to those norms. It is a natural expectation, for example, that authors have written the text of an article and have not recycled it from one of their own articles or from that of someone else. It is unfair to those who expend the effort to follow the rules to allow those who find it expedient to violate them to benefit from their infractions.

Sanders has also raised concerns about other researchers’ work; he’s called for the retraction of a prominent paper in Science that suggests bacteria can live off of arsenic.

Sanders declined to comment on whether his experience with sharing his concerns about data from other scientists — such as cancer researcher Carlo Croce, now suing him for defamation — had informed this list of responses from accused authors.

He added that Oncogene, like many journals, adheres to the editorial guidelines established by the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE). The journal has had to retract multiple papers — for instance, earlier this year, we covered a puzzling instance where researchers asked to retract a paper from the journal after correcting it, based on additional questions raised about the corrected images.

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Written by Alison McCook

October 26th, 2017 at 9:27 am

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