By Karin Krisher
What does it mean when retractions of scientific papers are on a noticeably steep upward trajectory? Does it mean individuals are less credible overall? Does it mean that publications have abandoned their commitment to truth seeking?
Or does it simply reflect a changing scientific environment that facilitates competition between many little fish in an ocean, rather than encouraging collaboration between the big fish in a smaller pond?
We’re inclined to blame the environment, a negative result of a generally positive change —growth. We of course recognize that online publication of papers allows them to reach a wider audience, meaning errors are likely spotted more often. But the argument here is not really about statistical method—it’s about the attitude shift that seems to have occurred with a boom in numbers of college (more specifically PhD) students and subsequently, scientists.
Because government spending on medical research has increased over time, and because media publication is a business, money is often a factor in a researcher’s success. Writes Carl Zimmer of the New York Times:
“The National Institutes of Health accepts a much lower percentage of grant applications today than in earlier decades. At the same time, many universities expect scientists to draw an increasing part of their salaries from grants, and these pressures have influenced how scientists are promoted.”
These pressures can also lead science down a terrible path: A promotion (and more flawed research efforts) might depend on research that isn’t viable if the researcher/writer has published many articles in journals of high import, an ability also determined by grant allocation.
By definition, the scientific method recognizes ignorance and incorrectness on the part of the scientist. But it has always been about dispelling, rather than encouraging, those traits. Talk to your colleagues about the sharp increase in retractions and discuss what it means to your practice and your way of understanding information.
With the advent of online publication comes the civilian’s ability to rapidly discover and absorb. While access to information is a beautiful thing, access to misinformation can be harmful—and retractions don’t always make headlines.
That’s why it’s important to know your stuff and be capable of dispelling those beliefs that may have been generated from since-retracted studies, either for your patients’ sake or for the value of your own information-seeking lifestyle.
How have you dealt with misinformation in the past, either with your patients or yourself?