Anatomy of a Retraction

Anatomy of a Retraction

It’s every researcher’s nightmare: published results that turn out to be flawed. Often, this is simply due to human error..rather than a nefarious case of fraud. Read an account of how Pamela Ronald handles this painful situation with honesty and grace.

Originally shared by ScienceSunday

Anatomy of a Retraction

When to retract your findings and why

Pamela Ronald presents a very personal view on the issue of retraction in her latest    _Food Matters_   blog for  Scientific American  :  http://goo.gl/Zq2fjH

There, she recounts her lab’s initial discoveries related to a rice immune receptor, XA21, and their later discoveries of errors in studies published in PLoSOne and Science. 

In talking about making the decision of whether to retract publications, Ronald writes:

For me, there was never any question that I would correct the scientific record if we had made a mistake. The bigger challenge was confirming that we really had made mistakes and generating sufficient evidence to warrant full retraction of the papers.

There were two important factors to consider. A delay in the retraction would waste the time of my colleagues who wanted to replicate our assays and build on our work.  But publishing a hasty retraction with insufficient evidence would be equally counterproductive. I therefore needed to figure out how to strike the right balance between getting the answer right and getting the word out that our research may be flawed. I discussed these issues with the journal editors early in the process. They agreed that caution was important and graciously allowed us ample time to carry out further experimentation. Although at first I planned to repeat all 25-plus experiments in the papers, it soon became clear that this would be impossible to accomplish within a reasonable time frame.  In April, at an international plant immunity meeting, I announced that we had made errors, that we were questioning some of our conclusions, and that I was working with the journal editors to publish a statement as soon as possible.

Sorting out the situation was personally and professionally painful for all involved. Instead of advancing the science in new directions as we’d planned, it was necessary to backtrack: re-isolate bacterial strains, optimize greenhouse conditions, and repeat experiments. Former lab members who had begun new positions as professors in Korea and Thailand were devastated to learn that the researchers in my lab could not repeat their work. Junior scientists in the laboratory worried their careers would be tarnished, and understandably did not want to spend too much time on the “clean-up” operation. I therefore assigned the bulk of the work of replication to experienced, highly qualified staff scientists, which took time away from their own projects but helped the junior scientists move to projects that were not affected by errors. It took persistence, courage and confidence to stick together as a team throughout this challenging year. I am proud that we were able to do this.

In his report on the issue Ed Yong (goo.gl/IP9dqC) quotes Ivan Oransky , of Retraction Watch, as follows: 

“Too often, scientists, their institutions, and journals find ways to sweep painful reality under the rug, or make half-hearted attempts to correct the literature. … For a researcher to go out of her way to publicize her mistakes is unfortunately very unusual. Some scientists worry that retractions lead to a mistrust of science, but when handled appropriately the way Ronald’s have been, they only boost public confidence in research.”

Be sure to click through to Ronald’s full blog here: goo.gl/Zq2fjH  for all the details, including statements of support that have come to Ronald from all corners of her professional and personal life, including a comment from her daughter reminding her that Everyone makes mistakes!

Ronald asked us to make sure people know not only about the retractions, but about the importance of retracting results to ensure the progress of science. 

#ScienceSunday   #scisunABS  

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image from Pamela Ronald ‘s blog:    goo.gl/Zq2fjH

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4 Comments


  1. Sometimes, our conclusions need to be refined, as Hawkins’ black hole theory and Johnjoe McFadden’s Cemi theory shows us. I think the critical point made is to first find out whether mistakes were actually made before publicizing or executing a retraction.

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