Retraction Watch offers some transparency about transparency

Tara Haelle

About Tara Haelle

Tara Haelle (@TaraHaelle) is AHCJ's medical studies core topic leader, guiding journalists through the jargon-filled shorthand of science and research and enabling them to translate the evidence into accurate information.

Photo: katie chao and ben muessig via Flickr

Photo: katie chao and ben muessig via Flickr

In the years since its inception, Retraction Watch has documented hundreds of troubled scientific papers that were eventually retracted, as well as other related controversies. Founders Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus have learned a lot in that time about following up on retractions, errors or other problematic aspects of scientific research.

Two years ago, they thought they had come up with some good advice for others who wanted to investigate concerns about a particular paper and published a piece on how to report alleged scientific misconduct in Lab Times.

With more experience, they’ve come to realize that the advice they previous offered wasn’t appropriate. So, in the spirit of their mission, they retracted it. Literally.

At the time their first piece was published in January 2013, not long after the Science Fraud website shut down following legal threats, Marcus and Oransky recommended that “dedicated figure sleuths and data investigators” first contact the editor and/or the authors of a potentially problematic paper. They acknowledged at the time that this is a frustrating first step to take: “No matter how much it makes you gnash your teeth, nor how many times you’ve been frustrated by complaints that vanish into a black hole – [this step] will only help you in the long run.”

But that’s precisely the advice they’re taking back now, with the benefit of more experience “observing cover-ups, being berated by select lawyers and speaking to people intimately involved in misconduct investigations.” They’ve learned that authors may use the heads up they’ve gotten to cover their tracks, thus making it even harder for oversight organizations and universities to investigate the case. “Let’s face it,” they said in their updated Lab Times piece, “those who are actually guilty of misconduct probably don’t have any scruples about covering up the evidence of that misconduct.”

Marcus and Oransky now suggest a different first step: skipping the authors and going directly to the universities and oversight organizations who would do the investigating. Give “research integrity officers, or the equivalent, at the institutions where the authors in question work” the head start instead of the authors suspected of misconduct. Another option, they add, is to contact the U.S. Office of Research Integrity.

This is useful advice for journalists doing investigative work on a paper that smells a little off. They also offer a second piece of advice that can help all journalists, whether doing investigative work or not. Check PubPeer, where commenters can anonymously post about a published work. This could be particularly helpful for a reporter covering a study that isn’t embargoed. It only takes a moment to stop at PubPeer and do a quick search to see what’s been said about a paper you’re writing about or using in research.

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