FLICKR, JUDY VAN DER VELDENIt’s been difficult to keep up with all of the retractions in the scientific literature this year, as it has been since we started our blog Retraction Watch in 2010. At the time of this writing, with a few weeks to go in 2013, there have been 511, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge. Here is our top 10 list for the year, in no particular order, based on the response of our readers and other “scientific” factors, such as whether we liked the story:
- One of our favorite stories this year was about a 15-year-old retraction by David Vaux, of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research. Vaux, who has fought the good fight for scientific integrity many times, had a heck of a time publishing a rebuttal to a flawed piece of research in Nature. So he decided to retract his own essay about that study.
- Another retraction story took a page out of a spy novel: Investigators looking into research by a star researcher were forced to install hidden cameras that revealed he was tampering with the evidence. He has now retracted three papers from the literature.
- Graduate students take note: Faking data in your dissertation can still get you a PhD, as long as the thesis remains “scientifically valid.” That would seem to be the take-home message of the tale of Nitin Aggarwal, whom the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) found guilty of misconduct. The case has led to one retraction so far.
- Speaking of ORI investigations, we recommend reading about the case of Michael W. Miller, who faked data on his federal grant applications and had several papers retracted in 2012. This year, however, Miller bounced back, landing a job as, you guessed it, a consultant for grant applications! (He lost that gig after we called his employers to ask if they knew about his past.)
- For sheer controversy value, one of the biggest retractions of 2013 has to be that of a 2012 paper on genetically modified maize and rats by Gilles Séralini and colleagues. In the retraction—which Séralini strongly opposed—the editor of Food and Chemical Toxicology didn’t cite any of the usual reasons for retraction, such as fraud or gross error, instead basically saying that the paper shouldn’t have passed peer review to begin with.
- The flip side of author objections might be, “What does it take to get your own paper retracted?” That question occurred to anyone who had followed the story of Robert Trivers, who finally succeeded in having a 2005 Nature paper he’d co-authored—and soon doubted—retracted in November.
- We have to hand it this year to scientists who’ve done the right thing, which in our case means retracting papers even if it comes at great professional cost. Biologists Pamela Ronald and Daniel St. Johnston, who voluntarily retracted papers from Science and Nature, respectively, are on that list. And scientists reward that kind of behavior too, it appears.
- In January, we wrote about a successful effort by “Clare Francis,” the pseudonymous scourge of journals worldwide, to force a retraction of a 2006 paper in the Journal of Cell Biology—providing proof positive of our contention that anonymous whistleblowers deserve a fair hearing by editors. Love him or hate him—and yes, Clare is a “he”— Francis is right more often than a broken clock, to mangle a favorite phrase of Ivan’s father.
- We have several candidates in a category we call “Plagiarism Euphemism of the Year.” There’s “unattributed overlap,” “a significant originality issue,” and an “approach.” Why, we wonder, do journals have such a hard time naming It That Cannot Be Named?
- For some comic . . . well, not quite relief, given the subject, but the retraction of “Penile Strangulation by Metallic Rings” deserves a mention.
Finally, although it was not a retraction, an honorable mention goes to Serbian academics who managed to get an Alan Sokal-esque paper citing Borat and porn star Ron Jeremy published in a Romanian magazine.
Happy 2014! Here’s hoping you don’t have to retract too many of your New Year’s resolutions.
Adam Marcus and Ivan Oransky are co-founders of Retraction Watch.