retractions are good for science

There’s a scandal brewing over Japanese scientist Yoshitaka Fujii, who is accused of fabricating 168 (!) published studies, many in well established American journals. This led me to the blog called Retraction Watch, which chronicles papers that have been pulled from publication due to error or fraud. My favorite is a paper on transcendental meditation, which was originally scheduled for publication in the prestigious Archives of Internal Medicine.

When we see retractions, we laugh at the peer reviewers or editors who let bad work slip by, or the authors, whose careers may be ruined. Butlaughter misses the point. Retractions are good for science. A retraction is an institutionalized form of correcting error. There is no other institution where public error correcting matters so much. Don’t go to church to see corrections to the Bible and don’t turn on the news to see your favorite politician admit the errors of his policy. They are always right. Retractions may be humiliating in science, but there are part of what makes science work.

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Written by fabiorojas

July 7, 2012 at 12:01 am

9 Responses

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  1. This is a very important issue, Fabio. Thanks for posting.

    I think it’s important to keep in mind that these retractions come after a great deal of criticism, carried out by Fujii’s peers, and published in scientific journals. In my experience, not only is the scholarship that is required to force a retraction difficult and time consuming to carry out, it often meets resistance from peers and editors. The retraction is the easy the part. It is criticism that “makes science work” (in a double a sense).

    Would this be a good time to ask the orgtheory bloggers to take a position on Karl Weick’s scholarship? So far you’ve confined yourselves to ridiculing the critics, skirting the issue with the question of “postmodernism”, and calling the critique a “stretch” (without first reading it).

    I thought at least a response to Andrew Gelman would be in order. It’s all well and good to talk about the importance of public error correction in other fields. In this case, either Weick or his critics are in error. Shouldn’t someone be working to correct these errors publicly? It’s what makes science work, right?



    July 7, 2012 at 7:47 am

  2. PS. In that first post on the matter here at ogrtheory, I note that Teppo even praised Weick’s non-retraction as “very sensible”, which also amused Gelman.



    July 7, 2012 at 7:53 am

  3. If one compares Weick with Fujii or even Lichtenthaler, I would question if one has understood why scientific dishonesty is dangerous.
    I am sort of with you on Weick, but how what one does with data impacts theory is just a far more serious matter.



    July 8, 2012 at 8:00 pm

  4. I can only support Fabio’s comments. However, I have long observed a reluctance on the part of some in academia to take sloppy research or overgeneralized conclusions to task especially when it has been done by on-campus colleagues, members of the same “club.” There critical review is governed by Thumper’s Mother’s Rule (see Disney’s movie, Bambi) : If you can’t say something nice, don’t say it at all.


  5. Thomas:

    My impression is that non-retraction is the norm, and retraction is considered exceptional. Just as we would applaud a person who rescues someone who has fallen on to the train tracks but would not criticize someone who does not perform the dangerous rescue, many academics see retractions as admirable but non-retractions as the usual behavior. Thus it can be possible for someone to applaud retractions while not being annoyed or disappointed with Weick for not acknowledging his plagiarism.


    Andrew Gelman

    July 9, 2012 at 4:47 pm

  6. […] Thomas Basbøll pointed me to a recent argument by Fabio Rojas that retractions are good for science. But, as Thomas points out: These retractions […]


  7. […] Thomas Basbøll pointed me to a recent argument by Fabio Rojas that retractions are good for science. But, as Thomas points out: These retractions […]


  8. […] Last week, I argued that retractions are good for science. Thomas Basbøll correctly points out that retractions are hard. Nobody wants to retract. Good point, but my argument wasn’t about how easy it is to retract. Rather, it’s about the fact that science is exceptional in that it has a built in error correction mechanism. […]


  9. When you say that “science is exceptional in that it has a built in error correction mechanism” you are discursively calling upon what is akin to a “TWOD”: a Truth Will Out Device.

    TWOD helps people beleive in “science”, in this case, hypothetically: retractions eventually ensure that e.g. the potential damage of “unscholarly” publications will be contained sooner or later. However, the presence of a few examples of retraction is hardly evidence that TWOD is ‘real’, as in ‘effective’? I.e. there is not much evidence that error correction works in science.

    TWOD was coined by Gilbert and Mulkay in 1984 in their book:Opening Pandora’s Box: A sociological analysis of scientists’ discourse.


    David Metz

    September 26, 2012 at 2:44 pm

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