I have a confession to make. We scientists are NOT Gods.
I know, I know, I know. Ecologists say we like to play gods and mess around with genes or modify the course of rivers or even get energy out of atoms…but seriously, NO.
And truth is, it is a big problem. Why? You say.
Since we are little kids we are taught to believe in print. If the book says so, it must be true that Cro Magnons could ride a dinosaur at full speed and Moses surely did open the waters of a sea to let his fellas go through…Then, surely, when one gets to do this lovely thing called Science it turns out that actually since we are not gods what’s written is not law and can be WRONG; and you spend months trying to reproduce results already published in peer-reviewed journals and it simply DOESN’T work, and you despair, of course. But maybe, only maybe, someone uncovers the uncomfortable truth you already knew yourself: those results simply CAN’T be and a retraction or correction to the original publication follows up. At that time you doubt whether:
a) To send a “little surprise” gift to the authors;
b) Breathe at last, because you have the final proof you were right and/or alternatively;
c) Send everything to hell and start a bar for frustrated PhD students (big business there, I tell you…)
Even if this is anything but a nice experience it is time to start accepting the fact this is just another part of Science. Not only because there will always be human unconscious errors but also because Science is yet another business in this capitalistic system that works under pressure (publish or perish) and where people can fall in the temptation of falsifying or “beautifying” their data (did you really think PhotoShop was used only to cover up spots in models impolite skins?).
Luckily, now it is becoming easier than ever for journals to detect some sorts of misbehavior, especially when it comes to image data, but the problem still remains that to clarify some doubts it is necessary to try reproduce the results of the article unsuccessfully, under almost exactly the same conditions as in the original paper and get access even to samples and original data, sometimes even years after publication.
An article published in Nature revealed that within the last 10 years the number of retractions has increased 10 fold and in nearly 50% of them the reason behind was bad practice (plagiarism, autoplagiarism, or falsified data). However, in this article there’s an even scarier claim that is that actually many articles aren’t even retracted because of editorial policies that make the whole process really obscure, also many scientists refuse to retract or correct their articles in fear of being pointed at as cheaters. Yet another problem is that often, when you access the article, via PubMed, for example, there’s no direct link to the later retraction, therefore retracted articles keep on being cited in new work (more on this)
You could wonder if this is the result of Science having lost its ethics on the way, however, both the author of the aforementioned Nature article and myself, think that the fact that now more errors are publicly acknowledged is not step back but a step forward since even though there are rotten apples in every bag (in some more than others, I am thinking politics, banking…Spain, Spain) it is more valuable for all of us to give the mea culpa and move on.
Doing Science is already hard enough to wait for that retraction to put an end to the pain of months/years of unsuccessful experiments (that was even reason of expulsion for two PhD students that couldn’t reproduce the results of a colleague that now has seen all papers retracted and PhD revoked for malpractice. Read more here.)
BTW, to be always ON with the latest retractions and derived scandals, take a look at Retraction Watch. It’ll be worth your while!
If you have liked this post, vote for it in OpenLab2013!