Blaming “data coding errors,” the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health has pulled an article linking shift work, age and sleeping problems.
The study was published four months ago, but managed in its brief lifespan to garner significant attention in the mainstream media and the blogosphere, although it has not been cited by any other papers. It comes alongside growing interest in the potential lnks between shift work and various health conditions including irritable bowel syndrome and breast cancer. Denmark even awards damages to shift workers who have developed the latter.
Marc Hauser, a prominent Harvard psychology researcher and author, will be taking a leave of absence from the university following “a lengthy internal investigation found evidence of scientific misconduct in his laboratory” that has led to the retraction of one of his papers, according to The Boston Globe.
The retraction, of a 2002 paper in Cognition, reads, in part: “An internal examination at Harvard University . . . found that the data do not support the reported findings. We therefore are retracting this article,” the Globe reports. It also includes the sentence “MH accepts responsibility for the error.”
Sometimes redundancy — the topic of our last post — is a failure of editors to adequately vet a manuscript. Other times, the blame falls more squarely on the authors.
Consider: In the August 2010 issue of Anesthesia & Analgesia, a highly regarded specialty journal, five researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, led by Andrew Ochroch, made a remarkable confession.
The unfolding drama of Anil Potti — a Duke researcher who posed as a Rhodes Scholar and appears to have invented key statistical analyses in a study of how breast cancer responds to chemotherapy — has sent ripples of angst through the cancer community. Potti’s antics prompted editors of The Lancet Oncology to issue an “expression of concern” — a Britishism that might be better expressed as “Holy Shit!” — about the validity of a 2007 paper in their journal by Potti and others.
Unlike newspapers, which strive for celerity as much as accuracy, science journals have the luxury of time. Thorough vetting, through editorial boards, peer reviewers and other filters, is the coin of the realm.
And yet mistakes happen. Sometimes these slips are merely technical, requiring nothing more than an erratum notice calling attention to a backwards figure or an incorrect address for reprints. Less often but far more important are the times when the blunders require that an entire article be pulled. For a glossary of the spectrum between erratum and retraction — including expression of concern — see this piece, commissioned by one of us, Ivan, while he was at The Scientist.
Retractions are born of many mothers. Fraud is the most titillating reason, and mercifully the most rare, but when it happens the results can be devastating. Consider the case of Scott Reuben, a prodigiously dishonest anesthesiologist whose fabrications led to the retraction of more than a score of papers and deeply rattled an entire medical specialty. (One of us, Adam, broke that story.)