Five years ago, I published two blogs about research misconduct, touching on the treatment of women with breast cancer. The first highlighted a paper in the New England Journal of Medicine – suggesting that a reduction in mortality was the result of improved therapy rather than screening mammography – where the author, Gilbert Welch, was found guilty of plagiarism. The second featured a paper by Anil Potty who “invented key statistical analyses in a study of how beast cancer responds to chemotherapy,” a revelation that sent shockwaves through the cancer community, which is reliant on the integrity of scientists.
In today’s edition of Science, the editor-in-chief, Holden Thorp, published an editorial entitled “Correction is courageous” (click here to download) in which he argued that it takes courage for a scientist to acknowledge his or her mistakes and to notify a journal accordingly. He suggested that “It’s crucial that the public trusts science at a time when so many topics – artificial intelligence, climate change, and pandemics – cast shadows of uncertainty on the future.” He continued, “Evaluating policies on misconduct is essential, but the idea of a scientific ecosystem that is free of errors is an unattainable utopia.”
Thorp (seen left) argued that researchers, editors, and peer reviewers are all fallible, and what is needed is an improved approach “to strengthen the process for correcting errors in the scientific record with expedience and transparency.” He cited a recent paper by Kathleen Hall Jamieson that appeared in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (click here to download) which suggested the public would be more likely to support increases in research funding if an improved approach was in place.
Thorp said, “The stigma that researchers associate with corrections and retractions, regardless of whether misconduct is acknowledged, is an obstacle to getting researchers, institutions, and journals to collaborate on better handling errors.” One solution is for journals to issue an Editorial Expression of Concern that alerts readers to a possible correction or retraction. The trouble is that some authors and institutions contest these notices.
In fact, an author of a paper published in PLOS ONE requested a correction, and the journal indicated its intention to post a notice while the correction was being considered and finalised. However, a co-author sued PLOS ONE to prevent publication of the notice, claiming it would damage her reputation. It turns out Retraction Watch has shown that corrections for an honest error do not have a negative impact on reputation, while Jamieson found support for science increases if the public believes protections are in place to reduce human bias.