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Friday, January 27, 2017

How likely are academics to confess to errors in research? | Times Higher Education

Here's another interesting article from Times Higher Education published by Holly Else. She explores the emotional, reputational and practical barriers to correcting mistakes.

Photo: Getty/iStock montage

Five years ago, the “ground opened up” beneath Richard Mann. Then a junior postdoctoral researcher at Uppsala University in Sweden, he was in the middle of a two-month visit to the University of Sydney in Australia and was due to give a seminar about a research paper that he had published recently. The paper was by far the most significant of his fledgling career, and the culmination of 18 months of hard work.

Three days before the presentation, Mann – who is now a university academic fellow in the School of Mathematics at the University of Leeds – received an email from a former colleague with whom he had shared his data. It said that there appeared to be a problem with the analysis of his results.

A few frantic minutes of checking confirmed his friend’s suspicion: the analysis program had picked up only a fraction of the data that had been collected. “It felt like almost everything I had done in my entire postdoc had fallen apart,” Mann tells Times Higher Education.

Mann is not the first researcher to make a mistake, and he certainly will not be the last. Mistakes happen in science, as they do in all professions. But owning up to scientific mistakes can be particularly difficult given the job description (to describe the world accurately), the extent to which professional prestige is often bound up with a researcher’s sense of self-worth, the key role that papers play in building scientific reputations and the enormous difficulty, from the outside, of distinguishing cock-up from something more sinister.

Some mistakes that do not affect the conclusions of a journal article can be resolved with a correction: an addition that details the error, puts it right and discusses the implications for the research’s findings. But if the mistake undermines the conclusions of the research, the journal or authors are typically expected to retract the paper. The same process is used to expunge from the literature papers whose mistakes derive from research misconduct, so there is often a significant stigma attached to retracting a paper even if the mistake is an honest one.

When he gave his seminar, Mann marked the slides displaying his questionable results with the words “caution, possibly invalid”. But he was still not convinced that a full retraction of his paper, published in Plos Computational Biology, was necessary, and he spent the next few weeks debating whether he could simply correct his mistake with a new analysis rather than retract the paper.

But after about a month, he came to see that a full retraction was the better option as it was going to take him at least six months to wade through the mess that the faulty analysis had created. However, it had occurred to him that there was a third option: to keep quiet about his mistake and hope that no one noticed it.

After numerous sleepless nights grappling with the ethics of such silence, he eventually plumped for retraction. And looking back, it is easy to say that he made the right choice, he remarks. “But I would be amazed if people in that situation genuinely do not have thoughts about [keeping quiet]. I had first, second and third thoughts.” It was his longing to be able to sleep properly again that convinced him to stay on the ethical path, he adds.

Source: Times Higher Education