Readers Beware: Science Is Retracted Quietly


Science is a remarkable business where you can follow your curiosity all the way. It’s like being a professional child in that  you get to ask questions and find the answers, investigate surprising results, and more ─ all you have to do is take good records and publish.

Of course, there’s more to this simplistic view of it. You need money to buy supplies, hire assistants, pay for the publishing, pay for the copyrights, upkeep of machines. Science is an industry, just like any other when you get past the joys of following curiosity.

And just like any other business, there are truths and lies. There are lab secrets as a team rushes to be “the first” at something and make news and rivalries. In the rush to be on top of the pile and famous your field, things get published that shouldn’t. Sometimes they are half-truths, sometimes they are mistakes. Rarely are they lies.

The publishing process is supposed to ensure that good science happens. It’s supposed to ensure that papers are peer-reviewed. During this process, reviewers can voice concerns, make note of mistakes, demand higher standards, and request raw data.

Sometimes the process doesn’t happen. Such a thing happened with the prestigious Science and a paper stating that fish larvae prefer to eat plastic over their own natural prey was accepted ─ without much data and seriously questionable methods. Unfortunately, Science isn’t the only publisher to publish unsound research, either. Frontiers in Computational Neuroscience, European Journal of Neuroscience, and the list goes on.

As of 2015, more journals say they have a retraction policy in place, but the total amount of them was only 35% of top journals. This may come as a surprise, but this is more than there used to be in the past.

The types of scientists that end up getting retracted can often be summarised by Dr. Chris Miller’s four types of fringe scientists. There are the mountebanks that chase the money, the con men (and women) that make great claims and falsify their data, heretic-heroes that go against the system (but ultimately turn out right), and the ill-defined crackpots that just have insane ideas.

Of these, the heretic-hero is the only one that would get their work retracted not because of bad science, but because people would say it’s a foolish idea. The rest? Those used bad science to try to follow something akin to a religion.

It is important for everyone to take sensational science with a grain of salt. Ideas come and go, but data to back it up is often slower to follow. There is a lot of ambiguity involved in science, but the promise of money or fame can cause several to join ranks with the mountebanks and con men. Even if that money is just a political ploy. All the standard rules for being on top of the game apply:

  • If a claim seems too good to be true, it just might be. 
  • If the data is missing, the results should be seriously questioned.
  • If the methods are wonky, so is the data and the results.

Use your common sense as a guide when looking at the research behind your world. It’s the safest way to not fall for sensationalized science.

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Grace Conyers

Grace is a soil scientist, researcher, educator, and science communicator. She spends a lot of her day alternating between teaching, dancing in a lab while waiting for chemical reactions, reading, and plotting business adventures. She is the owner and a co-founder of Insanitek Research and Development. Grace can be found on social media on Minds, Google+, and Vid.me. She invites you to meet up with her on any of these platforms.

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