Skip to Content
http://www.wgbh.org/authenticate/login
wgbh News

Listen
Living Lab Radio: Ivan Oransky and Kathleen Hall Jamieson

Rash Of Retractions Highlight Flaws In Science, But Also Self-Correction

Lab Experiment
Retraction Watch has compiled a database with more than 18,000 retracted studies.
nicolas_/Getty Images
Listen
Living Lab Radio: Ivan Oransky and Kathleen Hall Jamieson

Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women's Hospital recently called for the retraction of 31 studies they say contain falsified or fabricated data.

All were tied to the lab of one researcher who has been under investigation for a range of misconduct.

Major cases of scientific fraud like this one often make headlines. But hundreds more studies are retracted each year, most with very little fanfare.

One place they do show up is the Retraction Watch website.

Cofounders Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus have compiled a database of more than 18,000 retracted studies over the past few decades. Now the journal Science has analyzed that treasure trove to see what it might tell us about the state of science.

At least 60 percent of the retractions are due to some kind of misconduct. The other 40 percent are a mixed bag — some are marked as honest errors, but many entries don’t say anything about why the study was retracted.

The fraud ranges from photo-shopping images to making up data.

One and a half percent of authors account for about a quarter of retractions, showing that a relatively small group is responsible for a large amount of the problem.

One unexpected problem that cropped up: researchers who review their own papers by exploiting a weakness in the peer-review system.

“That's responsible for about 3 percent of the retractions in our database,” Oransky said. “Publishers really should be on the lookout for that.”

Retraction Watch has a “leader board” of the 30 people with the most retractions in the world.

“As a side note, they're all men,” Oransky said. “We can all speculate about why that might be.”

Oransky, who is also the distinguished writer in residence at New York University's Carter Journalism Institute, said that retractions have been on the rise lately, but there are many more cases out there of bad science that hasn’t come to light.

“There are lots of journals that have never retracted anything, and I'm not so sure that that really reflects the utmost transparency,” he said. “And … I'm probably being a little too kind.”

It’s critical for the media to report on retractions, but there is also a danger in reporting them sloppily, according to Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the director of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center.

“It is very important that they treat the fact of the retraction as part of a self-correcting process, not as an indictment of science either in the individual instance or science writ large,” she told Living Lab Radio.

Jamieson said good science journalism points out that discoveries are the result of the work of many people that builds over time, step by step.

“That's important because when a mistake or an error or an instance of fraud happens in the future we can then say but the public understands that, of course, that's in the scientific process,” she said.

Jamieson said she is impressed that the public still has high confidence in science and reporting on fraud in science needs to be careful not to cast all science in a bad light.

“In the process of identifying actual problems in an area of science, we need to make sure that we don't overgeneralize to say that means the science itself is broken,” she said. “It clearly is not.”

WGBH News coverage is a resource provided by member-supported public radio. We can’t do it without you.
Expand