What is retraction? Retraction is a statement saying that something one said or wrote at an earlier time is not true or correct. In the sciences, the public views this as a bad thing regardless of the situation. When a study is retracted, the public immediately begins to question the reliability of all research without looking at each on a case-by-case basis.
It is easy to fall into this way of thinking because the media tends to only highlight the studies that have been proven untrue by fraud. Cases can be found in many different areas. A few are Diederik Stapel’s numerous studies where a large quantity of data was fabricated, stem cell production, and the idea that vaccines cause autism. All three of these examples show the sciences in a negative light. Each of these cases unfortunately contributes to an added element of distrust and skepticism.
If one only went off of what was read or heard on television, they would think that retractions are always occurring. This could not be further from the truth. New studies are being published on a daily basis. In addition, a very small number are retracted. Some may, but it could be for a multitude of reasons, from data mistakes to new evidence being brought to light. Retraction does not always need to be thought of as a problem. The public needs to realize that the retraction of one study does not have any impact on the validity of another.
Diederik Stapel is one that has contributed to the public’s negative views on retraction. As of 2015, over fifty-five counts of retraction can be found in his work. He is a social psychologist from the Netherlands who faked data in an attempt to gain notoriety. One of his better-known studies stated that eating meat made people selfish. Stapel was essentially just coming up with ideas and adding the “correct” data in order to make it appear to validate his claim.
In his book, Faking Science: A True Story of Academic Fraud (2014), he describes, “Even with my various ‘grey’ methods for ‘improving’ the data, I wasn’t able to get the results the way I wanted them. I couldn’t resist the temptation to go a step further. I wanted it so badly. I wanted to belong, to be part of the action, to score.” He was misconducting studies to further his career in the psychology field. It is these types of retraction cases that make the public call all studies into question. If someone made a mistake that is one thing, but there is no excuse for someone who falsified data.
Like Stapel, Haruko Obokata has had a couple of her papers retracted due to what was referred to as “critical errors.” Obokata was the lead scientist on a stem cell research project. In her articles, she stated that there is a simple way to turn ordinary body cells into something that resembles embryonic stem cells. If this actually happened it would have been a very big breakthrough in science. The previous way that has been used, damages cells and has the tendency to turn the cells cancerous.
This article was published in Nature, which is one of the top science journals. Obokata’s praise was short lived because just days after her article was published questions were already being asked. A formal investigation was soon launched. Her article was published in January and a few months later, April to be exact, she was found guilt of misconduct.
Haruko Obokata is similar to Diederik Stapel in the sense that both were trying to get ahead in their field. Everything was done not to better the public, but themselves. When this occurs it becomes hard for people to trust studies and articles that are being published. It is unfortunate that these are the cases that get so much media attention. Studies and findings that are potentially doing good for the society are not highlighted because what goes wrong is always deemed more interesting.
Another example of retraction can be found in Andrew Wakefield’s 1998 study. Published in the Lancet, which is a well-known medical journal, Wakefield supposedly found a correlation between autism and vaccines. More specifically, he stated that the M.M.R. vaccine- measles, mumps, rubella- could alter a child’s immune system, which will then affect the intestines. After this, the brain will supposedly be affected.
Before the validity of the study was called into question, an anti-vaccine movement began. This resulted in parents choosing not to get their children vaccinated. Even with the study being retracted, a group still today believes it to be true.
Many celebrities have supported this movement to not vaccinate their children. One notably outspoken celebrity is Jenny McCarthy. In an article she wrote for the Chicago Sun-Times, McCarthy (2014) states, “I will continue to say what I have always said: ‘One size does not fit all.’ God help us all if grey is no longer an option.” Even after the study has been retracted, individuals such as Jenny McCarthy are continuing to spread inaccurate and unconfirmed information that has the potential to harm others.
Earlier this year there was an outbreak of measles, which was previously declared eliminated in the United States. If Wakefield’s study was retracted sooner, the outbreak may have occurred on a smaller scale. It goes to show if something, connection between vaccine and autism, goes on long enough the public will believe it, even when contradicting evidence is brought to light. The question of what should one believed can be raised. What is reliable, and what is not? Is there a way for the public to truly know?
All three of the examples showcased above contribute to how retraction is shown in a negative light in the public. The public should try to approach retraction in a different way. Instead of assuming the worse, one should try to look at each case by case. Retraction is not always a bad thing. Sometimes a study is retracted because an error was made or new information was found.
“If journals told readers why a paper was retracted, it wouldn’t matter if one journal retracted papers for misconduct while another retracted for almost anything,” this statement was said by Zen Faulkes (2011), a biologist at the University of Texas-Pan American. This is a perfect summary of how retraction is always viewed as a problem. Mistakes should not be viewed as the same as misconduct, but it happens.
The number of studies and articles that are being retracted is on the rise. This can give off the impression that misconduct is at an all time high, but this is not accurate. Below is a statement on the issue of science not appearing to be as reliable as in years past; Ivan Oransky, who is an executive edition at Reuters Health, speaks about this issue.
“I think that what we’re advocating is part of a much larger phenomenon in public life and on the Web right now. What scientists should be doing is saying, ‘In the course of what we do are errors, and among us are also people that commit misconduct or fraud. Look how small that number is! And here’s what we’re doing to root that out.’ “ (Oransky, 2011)
Oransky’s thoughts are still accurate even four years later. The Internet plays a very large role in how one receives information. Everyone can have a blog or post anything that one might find relevant or interesting. This could be one of the reasons as to why the number of retracted articles is rising. Journals that are not very reputable have a larger number of retractions than a well-established journal, such as Nature.
The public should also be aware that the number of retraction is still very low. Because the Internet allows people to access a large amount of information, it makes retraction appear to be a large and constant problem. This is fortunately not the case. Yes, retraction does occur, but it is not climbing at a rapid pace . There have always been researchers that have committed scientific misconduct. It is a few individuals that give everyone else a bad name.
Then there are a few individuals like Derek Stein. He is a physicist at Brown University who had a paper published in Physical Review Letter. It was brought to his attention that an error was made, so he went back and came to the conclusion that he did make a mistake. The next step that he took was retracting his own paper. Stein made a mistake, recognized this, and corrected his error. In this case, retraction was not a big deal. It is important to realize that there are researchers like Stein, who want to make an actual difference and not just a name for themselves.
In conclusion, the public should understand that mistakes happen. Everyone is human. Therefore, mistakes will be made. Also, new information is always being found. Studies are constantly being conducted, so this has the possibility to retract a study that is currently thought of as accurate.
Retraction is also not an everyday occurrence. The media would like the public to believe this, but it is not the case. Only the negative stories get highlighted, which is unfortunate for science because the misconception of retraction will lead to the public not being able to trust anything.
Carey, B. (2011, November 2). Fraud Case Seen as a Red Flag for Psychology Research. Retrieved October 24, 2015, from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/03/health/research/noted-dutch-psychologist-stapel-accused-of-research-fraud.html
Diederik, S. (2014). Faking Science: A true story of academic fraud (N. Brown, Trans.).
Dominus, S. (2011, April 23). The Crash and Burn of an Autism Guru. Retrieved October 22, 2015, from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/24/magazine/mag-24Autism-t.html
Haberman, C. (2015, February 1). A Discredited Vaccine Study’s Continuing Impact on Public Health. Retrieved October 27, 2015, from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/02/us/a-discredited-vaccine-studys-continuing-impact-on-public-health.html?_r=0
Keith, R. (2015, October 20). Diederik Stapel retraction count updated to 57 – Retraction Watch. Retrieved October 24, 2015, from http://retractionwatch.com/2015/10/20/diederik-stapel-retraction-count-updated-to-57/
McCarthy, J. (2014, May 14). Jenny McCarthy: The gray area on vaccines. Retrieved October 24, 2015.
Nagourney, A., & Goodnough, A. (2015, January 21). Measles Cases Linked to Disneyland Rise, and Debate Over Vaccinations Intensifies. Retrieved October 22, 2015, from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/22/us/measles-cases-linked-to-disneyland-rise-and-debate-over-vaccinations-intensifies.html?_r=1
Pollack, A. (2014, July 2). Stem Cell Research Papers Are Retracted. Retrieved October 25, 2015, from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/03/business/stem-cell-research-papers-are-retracted.html?ref=topics&_r=0
Rasko, J., & Power, C. (2015, February 18). What pushes scientists to lie? The disturbing but familiar story of Haruko Obokata. Retrieved October 24, 2015, from http://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/feb/18/haruko-obokata-stap-cells-controversy-scientists-lie
Retraction. (n.d.). Retrieved October 28, 2015, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/retraction