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Science and Retractions

Retraction Watch, http://retractionwatch.com/, is a blog that monitors scientific and other journals for retractions. It sounds really simple, and the basic concept is. But the implications are fascinating.

Repeatability is key to the scientific method. If I report results from an experiment, I should report in sufficient detail that you can reproduce my experiment exactly. And you should get the same results, within the inevitable instrumentation error. If you get a very different result, something is seriously wrong.

A scientific journal should make every reasonable effort to ensure that published papers are accurate. Peer review at its best is part of this process, but has its critics. Peer review and the editorial process don’t catch everything. Occasionally an error slips through and a paper is retracted.

In the biomedical field, retractions have increased faster than than the number of papers published, according to a 2012 study by Dr. John Krueger of the Office of Research Integrity (Department of Health and Human Services), using data from the National Library of Medicine (NLM). Retractions as a percent of papers published went from 0.0050 in 1996 to 0.0350 in 2011. Neither figure is vast in the scale of things, but the increase is disconcerting.

Another 2012 study of 2,047 retracted papers “found that 67.4% of retractions were attributable to scientific misconduct and only 21.3% were down to error. The misconduct percentage was composed of fraud or suspected fraud (43.3%), duplicated publications (14.2%) and plagiarism (9.8%).” Misconduct may actually be more common because many retractions are opaque about the reason(s) for the retraction.

This is important in public policy because public policy is often based on scientific results – often by politicians who are not themselves scientists. One obvious area of concern is the whole field of climate change. Skeptics were questioning the scientific methodology of the climate alarmists even before the Climatic Research Unit email controversy.

The best tool for detecting problems in science is still the original: a good healthy skepticism – especially among scientists.

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Thursday, 27 April 2017
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