Meet one of science publishing’s sentinels: Rolf Degen

Rolf Degen
Rolf Degen

To many Retraction Watch readers, the name Rolf Degen will sound very familiar – for the last few years, he’s earned quite a few “hat tips” by alerting us to retraction notices published across a wide range of fields of research, as well as research on trends in science publishing. We spoke to him about his passion for “truth, wisdom, and the scientific enterprise.”

Retraction Watch: Your name with be familiar to many readers, so can you tell us a bit about yourself?

Rolf Degen: As a freelance science writer living in Germany’s former capital Bonn, since the early 1980s I have had the pleasure to share my enthusiasm for psychology, neuroscience and evolutionary biology by writing articles for major German newspapers and magazines as well as several popular science books. I always found it a privilege to make a living by pursuing questions like “Who am I, how did I become that way – and why am I not Brad Pitt?”  For the longest part, my engagement was driven by unbridled obsession and a naive, unswerving trust in that incorruptible voice of truth and wisdom, the scientific enterprise. That is, until Retraction Watch and related voices disseminated the sobering recognition that, all too often, the so-called incorruptible voice has a skeleton in the closet.  In my case, that painful insight turned long-standing blind infatuation into a love-hate-relationship.

RW: What motivates you to search for retraction notices?

RD: With the advent of Retraction Watch, I noticed that its innovative approach to science – “from the back end,” if I may say so – offers a unique and enlightening in-depth look into the workings of academia. (It faintly reminds me of the ancient ritual of “Extispicy,” the inspection of entrails for the purpose of telling the future.) It’s an early warning system for exposing what is going wrong with our quest for knowledge, and in what is leading our curiosity astray. But it is also a symbolic return of the ancient pillory, for shaming those who have abused our trust (and taxes). And retractions can satisfy the demand for schadenfreude, deriving fun from the downfall of those who undeservingly enjoyed intellectual superiority. (Which is, basically adaptive, as I have documented.) When I come across a highly suspicious science paper, often it fuels in me the desire to become the first to spot its comeuppance.

RW: How much time do you spend, roughly, looking for retraction notices?

RD: I dedicate at most about a quarter-hour a day to the search. If you got the hang of it, this is just a fun brain teaser for the early morning, leaning more on weeding out the unsuitable than on zeroing in on the real thing. Some of the retractions I encounter inadvertently by ritually scanning a plethora of table-of-contents alerts I subscribe to. But I’ve got to keep it rolling, because, by my count, some retractions tend to vanish miraculously from the Google index.

RW: Why do you think it’s important to explore why a paper was retracted?

RD: One of the most basic principles of gaining knowledge is trial and error (though, sometimes it is more like mistrial and fraud). Apart from the necessity of setting the record straight in the individual case, analyzing the reasons why studies become retracted (or fail to replicate) offers the possibility of counteracting major aberrations in a field. My field, psychology, has been haunted by an embarrassing reproducibility crisis and a fourfold increase in retractions over the last years. It turns out that the crux of the matter lies less in the few cases of mega fraudsters, such as Diederik Stapel, but in a torrent of petty “science crimes,” or notorious questionable research practices.  And some lines of research, notably one of social psychology’s pet issues, so-called “social priming,” have taken the brunt of the onslaught.

RW: What are the most pressing issues facing science publishing, in your opinion?

RD: As to scholarly journals, the burning issues have been discussed to and fro by more qualified voices. But the incredibly accelerated turnover rate of scientific truth — evermore studies becoming discredited after being published online before they have even appeared in print — has badly affected science writing as well. It has become almost impossible to draft an exhaustive review of certain topics without letting slide some canards that have already been hopelessly debunked. Talking out of school: It has been noted that Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow” from 2011, which was then justly hailed as a true masterpiece, is loaded with stuff that didn’t stand the test of time. And then there’s the disruptive impact of the internet, which is still butchering the business model of science journalism.

RW: Are there any particular notices that you’ve found that you found particularly remarkable? 

RD: My own find that I enjoyed the most was a paper by a Bangladesh author that seemed to “prove” creationism. With incredible chutzpah, the author had hijacked the name of a renowned senior US entomologist – who had no clue of the coup – as an imaginary co-author. The paper AND its retraction have gone up in smoke. Which serves to remind that dealing with retractions can be, at times, wildly entertaining. Even from the periphery, I have learned that behind the scenes of some retractions loom staggering tales of the abysses of the human character. Which may stay undisclosed, be it for fear of libel, polite consideration or the principles of good taste. Speaking in riddles: Some people who commit scientific misconduct are not above committing much more serious crimes. Some who want to thwart or undo their outing resort to unbelievable charades, bordering the tragic or the ludicrous. I have even personally experienced exasperated influencing attempts. Perhaps, one day you will see a sensational investigative novel, à la “Science Unethics: Fear and loathing at Retraction Watch.”

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3 thoughts on “Meet one of science publishing’s sentinels: Rolf Degen”

  1. “Some people who commit scientific misconduct are not above committing much more serious crimes.” — That reminds me of one of the most basic rules of behavioral science: past behavior predicts future behavior. So someone who cheats in science either already has in-depth experience with cheating in other life domains and got away with it (reinforcement!) or will soon get this type of expertise. Except, of course, if he/she is caught and ends up on RW’s “shaming pillory”.

    And I’d really like to know who you had in mind here… 😉

    1. As a big fan of crime novels, I loved it when my favorite author of the genre, Sue Grafton, published her mystery “W is for Wasted”. The original sin in this book is a case of scientific fraud, the fabrication of data in a medical drug trial, but the faking gets out of hand and escalates into multiple murder. Grafton has delved into the subject and drafted a morality tale about how a slippery slope of unethical behavior in one area spills over to unethical behavior in another, much more serious area.

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