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A look at this year’s most memorable retractions
December 21, 2016|
PIXABAY, OPENCLIPARTFor the past few years, there has been one retraction per year that has really captured the world’s attention. In 2015, it was the retraction of a Science paper about gay marriage. The year before, it was the retraction of Nature papers on STAP stem cells. This year didn’t see nearly as many headline-grabbing retractions, although the story of the Karolinska Institute’s Paolo Macchiarini—who earned two expressions of concern (and was found guilty of misconduct in one paper this week)—garnered lots of press.
Still, 2016 has been the second consecutive year marked by more than 650 retractions. There has been heavy criticism of papers that touched on hot-button issues, plus some particularly curious cases in science publishing that made us scratch our heads. Here are our picks of the 10 most notable retractions of 2016, in no particular order.
1. In October, the Journal of Biological Chemistry retracted 19 papers coauthored by cancer biologist Jin Cheng, formerly at the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Florida. That’s something you don’t see every day. To learn more, we contacted Moffitt, who sent us a batch of email correspondence with the journal, which showed us it all began after Cheng asked to correct one paper. When he wouldn’t supply the journal with the raw data behind the figures in question, the journal took a second look at many of his other papers, and apparently didn’t like what it saw.
2. It’s every researcher’s worst nightmare: a manuscript gets rejected during peer review, then shows up later—published by one of the reviewers. Michael Dansinger of Tufts Medical Center took his heartache into his own hands, publishing a letter to the reviewer who stole his paper in the Annals of Internal Medicine, the journal that had originally rejected his manuscript during review. (The reviewer’s version of the paper—which contained the lifted work—was retracted in September.)
3. Does religious language belong in scientific papers? Not according to the backlash PLOS ONE received after publishing a paper in which the authors cited “the Creator” when discussing the biomechanics of hands. The journal immediately pulled it. (Incidentally, a poll of our readers showed a majority thought a correction would have sufficed.)
4. This year saw a messy situation out of Singapore: a Harvard research fellow lost his PhD from Nanyang Technological University after being found guilty of falsifying data. He left the Harvard lab, and has earned a series of retractions. Not all of those were the result of that researcher’s misconduct, however—some stemmed from the actions of an unnamed coauthor. (Confused yet?)
5. There aren’t many topics that get researchers as fired up as genetically modified organisms (GMOs), so traffic surged when we reported that a nutrition journal had retracted a paper by Federico Infascelli, an animal nutrition researcher at the University of Naples, who showed modified genes could end up in the bodies of baby goats whose mothers ate GMOs. The initial retraction notice listed duplication as the reason, but was later updated to include data fabrication.
6. Last month, social media erupted over an abstract published by Frontiers in Public Health, showing that vaccinated children were more likely to develop neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism. The journal quickly pulled the abstract, saying that it was “provisionally accepted but not published.” In December, the journal announced that it had rejected the paper outright.
7. This year saw a lot of news out of Iran. First, a publisher was hacked, forcing it to pull 13 papers by authors based primarily in Iran, and withdraw another 52 papers not yet published. Separately, BioMed Central and Springer retracted nearly 60 papers (also from mostly Iran-based authors) after finding multiple problems, including fake reviews and plagiarism. We also discovered a case in which authors based in Iran were impersonated by someone who initially impersonated a prominent Dutch researcher. Phew!
8. 2016 showed no signs of slowdown in the movement of academic disputes into courtrooms. This year, we logged the 16th retraction for a researcher at the center of a whistleblower lawsuit against Duke University, claiming two scientists and the institution included fraudulent data in in applications and reports related to federal grants worth approximately $200 million. (We covered the case in more detail in Science.)
9. Ned Nikolov, a US government scientist, was told he couldn’t do climate research at work. So he published some controversial findings under a pseudonym. Trouble is, he was caught. So Nikolov and a coauthor withdrew one paper and corrected another, explaining why they used the unusual monikers (which weren’t too hard to sleuth out—just their real names spelled backwards).
10. Can art be dangerous? Earlier this year a paper suggested the formaldehyde released from the work of prominent artist Damien Hirst could be harmful. The paper was quickly retracted, against most of the authors’ wishes. (Hirst’s company declared it had done its own testing, and reported no risk to art lovers.)
“The Top 10 Retractions of 2015,” The Scientist, December 2015
“The Top 10 Retractions of 2014,” The Scientist, December 2014
“The Top 10 Retractions of 2013,” The Scientist, December 2013
December 21, 2016
These might be regarded as cathartic reading, in that they might be sickening, but also might be pointing at some sort of basis for cleaning out the field.
A few items might be worth thinking about (I do not for a moment suggest that they will be easy, context-free, or quickly effective, if ever).
1. Science degree courses (or at least honours courses after the first degree and before Masters or Doctoral courses) should include a compulsory course, a minimum of a semester) on philosophy of science, including ethics and consequences, with case studies.
2. Reviews might remain confidential, but should be available for confidential inspection by a legally empowered panel, together with the source material and any related complaints of delay, revelation, withheld data, coercion etc. Such a panel would have the power to make findings public in the event of finding sufficient grounds for suspicion of impropriety.
3. Any journal publishing or intending to publish research would have legal rights and duties to report suspicions to the panel or some similar body.
4. Any person participating as an author or other signatory to the work should have to include sufficient explanation of his or her role and responsibilities in the work, so that say, if the head of department includes his name as overseer or the like, he accepts full responsibility for shortcomings or culpability.
5. Plagiarism or other deliberate or reasonably avoidable misrepresentation in a research paper should be legally culpable as a tort, on the same basis as any other fraud.
6. An international data bank of published works should be created in a suitable structure for presenting any work for publication and checking it for probable plagiarism. By now storage is cheap enough and processing and communication capacities are sufficient to make such a facility both possible and affordable. A work need not be published to appear in the bank, just presented for publication. All major countries with active scientific programmes might wish to participate. Such a data bank would be immensely valuable for other purposes as well, with different classes of confidentiality. For example one couldn't necessarily get to read a confidential document just by submitting a document that appeared likely to be plagiarised from it. Journals would be expected to submit documents to the bank before submitting them for review.
Note that with such facilities, it would be a naive novice who even would try to fool the system, knowing that he would be unlikely to succeed at all, and if he did it would pretty surely come out sooner rather than later, and that would be the end of his career.
It is a sad reflection that such things could be needed at all, but on the credit side, it could re-establish scientific integrity as the default standard, and could do a great deal for other sapects as well, such as the integrity of reviewers.
December 28, 2016
The mentiom of the creator requires retraction? Shall we also retract the USA declaration of Independance and other public documents? How about Darwins Origin of the Species? Shall we go back and retact the works of other people like Farday? The irony that among a bunch of liars, cheats, and thevies that don't want any mention of a Creator is not lost on me.