When I was in graduate school, one of the most important things I divined from the teaching was the massive hole in published scholarly research that doesn’t report what wasn’t found. Too many educational journals only report new research or confirmed findings. What’s missing is the public sharing of failures: “This is what we thought, and here’s how we tried to prove it, but it didn’t work out, and here’s why.”
That lack of “failure to find” in scholarly publications can be deadly to an academic reputation and so there is tremendous pressure to “find something!” that will be meaningful and dramatic and history-staking so you can get that tenure appointment or research grant or university award you so truly covet.
The sad fact of academia is that some researchers are not honest. They fudge findings and manipulate studies to prove “what they thought” was, indeed, correct and not a failure. Too many of us make the mistake of believing everything we read in print — we must always be cynical and question proven thought — and that’s why the Retraction Watch blog is one of the most vital tools we have in our thinking arsenal for setting the scholarly record straight after a malicious manipulation of what we think we know makes it in print.
Sometimes these slips are merely technical, requiring nothing more than an erratum notice calling attention to a backwards figure or an incorrect address for reprints. Less often but far more important are the times when the blunders require that an entire article be pulled. For a glossary of the spectrum between erratum and retraction — including expression of concern — see this piece, commissioned by one of us, Ivan, while he was at The Scientist.
Retractions are born of many mothers. Fraud is the most titillating reason, and mercifully the most rare, but when it happens the results can be devastating. Consider the case of Scott Reuben, a prodigiously dishonest anesthesiologist whose fabrications led to the retraction of more than a score of papers and deeply rattled an entire medical specialty. (One of us, Adam, broke that story.)
The great value of Retraction Watch is that their thinking and analysis doesn’t end after the publication of an article — they begin after the ink dries. If a paper is retracted, they report that vitally important fact. We often read something, take its conclusions as factual, and file away the information. We rarely have the afterthought of re-checking to make sure what we once read is still true after initial inebriation.
Retraction Watch fills that necessary watchdog space after the public truth has been “taken back” by the facts of reality and that’s why I love reading that blog. Retraction Watch traces the real roots of the truth and displays them back into the realm of public re-consumption. We need Retraction Watch and Retraction Watch needs us. I urge you to follow that blog and subscribe to its invaluable and necessary mission of reconfirming the truth of the public record.