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.

22 Comments

  1. No; admitted or proven fraud is the most rare. We don’t have figures for the overall total since many people, realizing that they’re going to get caught in fraud, will retract their position and give error – somebody else’s whenever possible – as an excuse.

    1. I don’t think we’d have such a retraction problem if we valued null research, and published it, in the first place. Confirming something that isn’t there is just as important as confirming a new discovery.

      1. Null research isn’t valued and likely never will be because a small group of “scientists” control the peer review process and they’re loath to publish anything that contradicts what they’ve decided that their own findings are.

        Take “Global Warming” as one example. A small group did their best to silence dissent and null findings and had the power to do so because they controlled the peer review and publishing process. They weren’t going to allow contrary findings to interfere with their income stream of grants from the IPCC and various governments.

        Remember, if it’s “publish or perish” and I control what can be published, I decide who perishes and who doesn’t…You want grants and tenure? You publish what I want then.

      1. A coworker’s wife collapsed twice, once at work, and once at WalMart because she avoided salt like the plague. Diagnosis? Low sodium blood count. Her episode(s) really got me to thinking about the validity of ‘most’ of the studies on ‘anything’ posted these days. There’s holes all over the place. This poor girl nearly killed herself over a false representation that nobody is/was very sure of.

          1. As a rule they are going to be testing for liver and kidney function. Too much ‘trash’ in your blood indicates problems. Then the triglycerides (fats) and cholesterol (nasty little animal) White blood cell count (high = potential bacterial infection) red blood cell count (low = anemic at best / leukemia at worst)
            Just a whole battery of things to see if your motor is running good. 🙂

    1. Fasting is also used to check the glucose/sugar metabolism i.e. diabetic potential.
      Did you know diabetes (the common type 2 that EVERYONE these days has) is caused not by ‘lack of insulin’, but the inability of the cells to receive it? Usually there’s plenty of insulin – which is causes fat storage – hence Type II’s are usually overweight – it’s because their cells are effectively blind to it’s existence. When the medical profession decides to inform the general populace exactly what’s wrong in the Type II diabetic condition and and treat THAT problem (inablility to metabolize insulin) some of the diabetic epidemic would disappear. Obviously that’s not a blanket solution, but it would go a long way to stabilizing Mayor Bloomberg’s 32 oz Pepsi problem.

      1. Yes! We’ve written quite a bit about sugar and diabetes and maintaining proper internal alignments in our Dramatic Medicine blog. I agree that weight control can help a lot when it comes to controlling Diabetes, and it’s fascinating how many undiagnosed Diabetics often undergo a drastic weight loss right before they discover their Diabetes is in full rage — that’s the body’s way to trying to radically self-correct.

          1. Ha! There’s no wrong squares here, Lillian! We have 14 blogs, but one purpose: Recording the Truth. 14 different places, one soapbox! SMILE!

          2. And I’ve scoured most of the last six months’ posting on all 14 now. Keep up the good work!

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