Nature Neuroscience | Action Potential

Retraction reaction redux

I apologize for the long time between posts. Things have been busy and I hope to have more for you soon. In the meantime, I wanted to toss out something to tide you over.

A recent Nature editorial extends the previous discussion that began in the AP post “”http://blogs.nature.com/nn/actionpotential/2008/03/retraction_reaction.html">Retraction reaction", concerning the retraction of a paper from the lab of Nobel Prize winner Linda Buck. The editorial touches on the issue of a significant weakness in the scientific process. Namely that save for a select few in the “know”, the community-at-large rarely learns of what went wrong in a study, leading to its eventual retraction. This is indeed a concern and an on-going problem.


Perhaps in the past, there wasn’t an appropriate forum for such explanations. Journals such as Nature are not going to offer valuable page space for the authors to describe their faulty experiments or analytical mistakes. However, in this day and age, there are a variety of options that could provide such a platform for an explanation. PLoS ONE is one possibility, with the authors perhaps obligated to explain their new negative results such that the community can learn from the mistakes made in the retracted paper and avoid the same pitfalls. Being moderated by an academic editor, going this route has the added advantage of having another set of unbiased eyes to peruse the data. Alternatively, as article commenting threads become increasingly available and popular, authors could even append new explanations and/or analysis to the retracted paper itself, providing an immediate detailed exposé of their mistakes.

What obligations should be met by the scientists (and the institution?) who have authored a retracted paper? This is messy business, but a topic worth discussing. As the editorial alludes to, a failure to discuss the flaws leading to the retraction can be toxic for the reputation of the younger scientist, thus, the need for a therapeutic call out to the field, laying bare all of the warts and wrinkles in the study. Going forward, not providing a follow-up to a retracted paper, despite the numerous venues with which to do so, may be at the peril of not only the young scientist, but the senior, established researcher as well.

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