Better (publishing) background checks: A way toward greater integrity in science

C. Glenn Begley

Science represents perhaps the single greatest accomplishment of humankind. Of all human institutions, organisations and establishments, science has proven an effective tool for driving progress. It is inherently self-correcting, and tolerates — and even demands — skepticism, challenge and self-critique. Few human institutions can make a similar claim.

However, there is increasing recognition and concern that current research incentives are perverse, and promote behaviors that undermine the very foundations of science.  Under the guise of altruism and independence, the self-serving, self-promoting nature of academic science today is typically neither declared nor acknowledged.   The dispassionate, objective analysis and presentation of data is frequently lost, as results are seen as personal (“my data”) and subservient to a personal or political agenda. As a consequence, scientists are losing their authority to speak, genuine experts are often disparaged and ignored, and our society is diminished.

This situation is not new. In his prescient farewell address in 1961, President Dwight D. Eisenhower acknowledged “a revolution in the conduct of research” and observed that the pursuit of taxpayer funding sources for researchers might become “a substitute for intellectual curiosity” and expressed his concern regarding “The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment … and the power of money.”  

Sadly, we have seen that concern play out as researchers chase a publication in a high-impact factor journal, to secure the next federal grant, to generate the next high-impact factor paper, to secure the next grant, and so the cycle continues.  Too often, scientific self-preservation substitutes for intellectual curiosity. 

Currently, publication in a high-impact factor journal is taken as evidence of scientific success and accomplishment.  Furthermore, a high-impact factor paper is accepted as evidence of scientific quality. Sadly, neither is true. Unfortunately, with publication in a high-impact factor journal there is no requirement that the work is independently validated, no requirement that the work is robust, no requirement that it will stand the test of time. In fact, no metric exists for scientific quality. 

As a result, the monitoring of retracted  publications assumes great importance as a ‘safety check’: The retraction provides evidence that a piece of work was flawed and should not be considered a foundation upon which others can build. This offers an important insight into the quality of scientific effort of individuals or institutions – it is a key metric that often appears to be ignored.

At the outset, it is important to note that all retracted publications are not equal — some retractions reflect well on investigators who recognize and acknowledge a mistake, and retract an erroneous publication to correct the publication record. These investigators should be celebrated and applauded!  They are a great example: We should reward and encourage their behavior, particularly as the journals often are reluctant to retract a publication, even at the authors’ request. In that context, it is important that the Retraction Watch database provides reasons for each retraction, allowing the reader to make their own assessment of the significance of the issues involved in each case.

It is troubling that despite Retraction Watch’s conscientious efforts to improve the quality of science, and identify specific retracted publications, the fruits of this important effort often are overlooked or ignored.

As evidence of the apparent lack of value placed on retracted publications, having personally been in active research environments for nearly 40 years, and during that time having had multiple research grants, appointments, promotions, students and post-doctoral fellows, this year was the first time I have ever been asked if I had co-authored a retracted publication. Perhaps that indicates progress? I also have seen scientists who gain promotion, awards and re-appointment or relocate to a new institution despite their record on Retraction Watch: It would appear that transfer to a new institution can serve as a “re-set” and during the relocation process the prior record is ignored. 

It is also concerning that the widely-accepted institutional rankings systems do not appear to consider retracted publications as part of the ranking process: Many of the top institutions from the 2020 Times Higher Education World University Rankings figure prominently on Retraction Watch.

We, as the scientific community, must begin to address these shortcomings. 

To that end, I propose:

  1. Scientists should declare their citations on Retraction Watch on their Curriculum Vitae.  Just as the Curriculum Vitae might record the number of publications, the number of citations, H-factor, etc, scientists should also declare their citations on Retraction Watch. It should certainly be expected that this information will be required during applications for grants, promotions, and when interviewing potential students and postdoctoral fellows.
  1. Students and post-doctoral fellows should be routinely advised to review the Retraction Watch record for any potential laboratory or principal investigator with whom they might consider working.
  1. Funding agencies should routinely review the Retraction Watch record before grants are reviewed, and certainly before they are awarded.
  1. Institutions should routinely check the record on Retraction Watch before appointment and promotion of their staff.
  1. Institutions should make it a priority to prevent misconduct and any ongoing and future retractions that result. Some famous institutions have multiple laboratories across the institution with a small number of such retractions; other institutions have one or two laboratories with many tens of such retractions. While the former might reflect a widespread cultural problem, the latter presumably reflects an institutional lack of integrity and unwillingness to deal with poor performance.  It is concerning to see prominent individuals with multiple retractions for misconduct continue to receive institutional support and continue to enjoy the privilege of mentoring students and post-doctoral fellows. Whatever the reason, institutional prominence on Retraction Watch should be a warning sign for students, post-doctoral fellows, potential staff and funding agencies.

As scientists we enjoy an immensely privileged position. We work in an environment that has little regulation or oversight. We are supported by the taxpayer to engage in an activity that is intellectually invigorating and deeply rewarding. We enjoy that support as society expects us to continue to deliver advances that will improve their lives. As a scientific community we should strive for greater integrity, and embrace the changes that will strengthen our voice and our endeavors going forward. We can willingly undertake the requisite changes we know are necessary, or the time may come when we are compelled to do so.

C. Glenn Begley, together with Lee Ellis, highlighted the importance of robust scientific data in an oft-cited 2012 publication in Nature. He is currently Chief Executive Officer at BioCurate Pty Ltd, created  to commercialize research emanating from University of Melbourne and Monash University. His prior positions included 10 years as Vice President and Global Head of Hematology and Oncology Research at Amgen.

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5 thoughts on “Better (publishing) background checks: A way toward greater integrity in science”

  1. Superb article.

    It’s a tempting redress, but does this not impose too much responsibility onto this blog? The efficiency seems attractive at first glance. Yet by dividing checks and balances in this manner, doesn’t it make the reputation and operations of this blog a political target (more than it already surely is?) The bureaucracies and unionists will be demanding all sorts of ‘transparency’ into the goings on here to waste its resources and slow it down. That’s a formidable ask of these guys.

    I would surely trust this investigative journalism entity with the responsibility far more than some new nebulous organization with the same funding sources as the targets they’re investigating–relying the FDR solution of bureaucracy expansion for just about any problem. But I’m not so sure this proposed measure is enough stable counterbalance to redress Ike’s warning. I often wonder if federal money should vanish altogether but for the sole purpose of replication studies, and let the ideologically varied state systems and NGOs take the initiative for primary research–partnering up for big price tag initiatives as they see fit.

    Employers asking for how much oil was caught in the Retraction Watch drain pan is a sign they’re already serious about reform. Perhaps it’s the key additive. But either way, inspiring employers to get serious has to come first, and I don’t see how that occurs without more public attention to give reformers leverage.

    Think I’ll drop another $5er to my favorite NGO…Retraction Watch, before the big guys come knocking on their door inviting them to a fancy dinner…. Please say No, RW, say no.

  2. “It [science] is inherently self-correcting…”

    It takes people to correct science. It does not happen by itself.

  3. In my opinion, doing this would cause Retraction Watch to rapidly go the way of Beall’s List. The liability exposure is too high. It would also miss retractions which for whatever reason aren’t in RW’s database.

    Why involve the blog? Ask people to list all retractions and corrections of their papers on their CV. RW can be a go-to resource for people evaluating the CV to find out if the researcher is being honest about retractions or not.

  4. Perhaps the singularly truest axiom I have learned, where science is concerned, goes: “when politics gets involved, scientific credibility vanishes.“

    This excellent article does an incredible job of highlighting issues that have long frustrated me. I stumbled on RW in the last few months, and have fallen in love with it! My “job,“ if you will, is digesting science-based research, and presenting it to non-scientists.

    I am not a scientist, per se, but use my systems analyst skills to study, and hopefully understand, which scientific papers are valid, and which are a waste of pixels. I have had more than one researcher discredit everything I had to say because I did not have the right “alphabet soup“ behind my name. Thankfully, that does not matter to my clients, who have come to trust my ability to digest the studies and provide them with a layman’s level description of the take-away.

    It is with that as a backdrop which caused me to immediately sign up for the email notifications from RW, which brought me to this article. I was very pleasantly surprised to see an actual researcher expressing the same points about the risk of scientific research and political involvement. Perhaps this is much more common and I understand, because, as I said, I have only seen this site for a few months. It does, however, convince me that I have finally found a resource that I feel I can trust!

    Thank you for this article; thank you for the site; thank you for the work you do!

  5. Thank you for the comments you have provided.
    I appreciate the effort and thoughtfulness of your responses.
    Thank you!

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