Doing the Right Thing

What’s behind paper retractions? (19)
by Adam Marcus and Ivan Oransky, Labtimes 06/2013

Photo: zettberlin / Source: PHOTOCASE

In praise of researchers who correct the scientific record at personal cost.

Jeffery Kelly, of the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, USA, realised after publishing two papers in Protein Science in 2009 and 2010 that his lab had made a mistake in those studies.

“My laboratory, in the process of trying to isolate and identify a protein(s) exhibiting disaggregase activity, realised that too many candidates were active which led us to realise that the interpretation of our previous data was incorrect,” Kelly told us recently for a Retraction Watch post. “It took us almost a year of effort to figure this out and convince my trainees who actually did the initial experiments that we misinterpreted our data.”

Admitting an error publicly

A lot of researchers would have just shrugged, or have published a new paper without noting the issues. Science corrects itself over time, right? But not Kelly. In a paper recently published in Protein Science, he and his team wrote: “Based on the results described in this paper, we conclude that our interpretation of the kinetic fibril disaggregation assay data previously reported in Protein Sci. 2009, 18, 2231-2241 and Protein Sci. 2010, 19, 836-846 is invalid when used as evidence for a disaggregase activity. Thus, we retract the two prior publications reporting that worm or mammalian cell extracts disaggregate Aβ amyloid fibrils in vitro at 37°C. We apologize for misinterpreting our previous data and for any confounding experimental efforts this may have caused.”

It turns out that the journal’s editor thought the retractions should actually be corrections, and that the version we quote above was published in error. Some Retraction Watch commenters agreed that retraction wasn’t appropriate. Regardless of how Kelly et al.’s move is categorised, however, the intent – publicly admitting error, something which unfortunately still comes with a professional price tag – is clear.

Kelly joins other scientists in taking the high road. Pamela Ronald, of the University of California, Davis, did the same thing with a PLoS ONE paper. About a year after publishing a study on quorum sensing, Ronald and her colleagues “discovered critical errors”, which they noted in a comment on the paper. When they tried to replicate the original findings, they couldn’t, so they retracted. And the authors of a 2006 Journal of Immunology paper retracted it in early 2011 when they realised they had ordered the wrong mice. Compare this model behaviour to what we too often see: Obfuscation, euphemisms and ignoring whistleblowers.

When you run a blog about retractions, it’s easy to get into a rut of criticising scientists and publishers for a lack of transparency. That’s why, at the suggestion of a reader, we’ve created a “Doing the Right Thing” category on Retraction Watch. The hope is that highlighting – and praising – such behaviour will remove some of the unfortunate stigma that’s now attached to correcting the scientific record transparently, because so many retractions are, in fact, due to misconduct.

Acknowledge the sacrifice

As University of California, Berkeley biologist Michael Eisen wrote last year in response to a retraction that many questioned: “When a word means something in the community, it doesn’t matter what a dictionary or some unknown committee says. Retractions are viewed by scientists and the public as marks of shame.”

What if we could change that? To be sure, we’re not advocating that every paper proved incorrect should be retracted. But researchers who fall on a grenade to protect their fellow scientists from folly are doing the field a commendable service. Perhaps it’s time more people began acknowledging the sacrifice.

Last Changed: 11.10.2013