I would like to thank Ingfei Chen for this article. 👍 Thank you.
I think this article indicates pretty clearly that the scientific process has broken down in regards to errors and/or misconduct. We scientists always talk about the open debate required of science but for a variety of reasons, that debate is not taking place when it comes to this issue. Yes I recognize the factors that keep scientists from addressing the issue here and others like it (and were noted in the article, like career suicide for a post-doc for example). But the process is not working as it should. It would seem the open debate part of scientific research only applies to competing studies that were done correctly but come to different conclusions. Open debate is very nearly non-existent for situations for error and/or misconduct. I agree with the article that going right to misconduct charge is not the way to go initially at least. But there should be debate about suspect errors. An open discussion of such errors would bring others with appropriate expertise into the debate and flesh out whether something is in error. After that has occurred institutions or scientific societies can examine whether it was due to misconduct. And I know that most institutions and societies right now would likely not fulfill this role unless the conduct was sufficiently egregious to harm their program or reputations. Institutions themselves are part of the problem as they have “invested” in the people working for them and thus are not unbiased actors in this situation. But nevertheless they should be playing this role, another break down in the research process. While this article is very good, I find scientists too willing to justify keeping things as they are. Possibly losing a grant is not a legitimate reason to not perform the role that has been entrusted to scientists. This article and others I have read on this topic seem to give short shrift to the ethical debate. Yes I know there is a lot of competition for grants, thus to remain competitive scientists are pressured to publish a lot and frequently. So what? This is not justification for allowing the issues of errors and/or misconduct to go on. It is simply an excuse to not do something that is hard, but is front and center of the scientific process, debating the science. No you don’t just debate when conflicting studies are competently done, you need to debate when there are errors too. That is rarely happening. If the obstacles to doing this, such as career suicide are too big to overcome, then we need an anonymous forum where this debate can take place. It appears baby steps are being made with organizations like Retraction Watch playing some role, but this issue is scientists themselves corrupting the scientific process and should not require a whole new organization to get scientists to do what they should be doing. OK, you want to do something anonymously, fine. Scientists themselves should be pushing hard to set up a credible process where that debate can take place. But this is not what is happening. Scientists are shirking their duty and responsibility entrusted to them by not doing so. Perhaps on of the journal publishers could do this and set it up in a way where there is a continuing debate about any questionable results, all sides can have their input and probably would need moderation so that it is used by verified scientists. Opening it to the public would allow to much social media “noise” as can be seen on any internet discussion forum. And likely just the fact that something is being discussed would get those publishing questionable results to lay out their data, explain their justification given how scientists care so much of their own reputation. The results methodology could be delved into with greater detail, with back and forth among those taking one side or another. This by itself would be a huge step forward. A step farther: allow discussion to take place for a reasonable period, then have anonymous peer reviewers examine the discussion (and be part of the discussion as well mind you), and like all journal articles put forth judgement. They may determine that an error in methodology has occurred and recommend a correction. This recommendation would have no force in that this organization could not enforce their recommendations, only suggest them. Scientists publishing the papers with errors should be allowed to correct the papers as an addendum to the title, abstract and a new section. For example, the original paper and its content would remain, the addendum might read that such and such an error occurred and the findings of part or all of this paper are incorrect with explanation. Why keep the paper rather than retract? Over time this information may have become part of the “institutional memory” of findings on the topic. Removing the paper or simply retractiing may perpetuate the errors carried forward due to that institutional memory. Correcting the paper helps stop the continued use of that information as there is now a publication record showing this finding or part of a finding are no longer valid, and it is right there, documented in the journal. If you are a scientist worth your salt, you will keep up with this and immediately correct that institutional memory for yourself. Instead what we have now are disagreeing scientists quietly talking among themselves, and not the publishing authors, and slowly, people working in the field become aware of a potential error. A very very inefficient process also not accessible to all who have not interacted with this group of “informal in the know” scientists. In addition to this process, we need a journal for publishing negative results. Negative results are useful information and also would allow scientists to publish their findings that directly contradict earlier work, which itself would foster more discussion on the issue at hand. The scientific community also culturally needs to support published negative results as a quality study that is as important as studies that find positive results. This is needed so that scientists take the time to publish negative results as it is worth their time to do so. These negative results don’t need to necessarily suggest error on the part of other studies with questionable findings, although ideally they would point such things out. But as we have seen scientists have many excuses for not doing just that. So simply publishing the non-confirmation would suffice for drawing attention to questionable data. I too have experienced dealing with results from others I could not duplicate and wasted a year and a half of a post-doc to figure it out. That is a lot of time to waste because scientists don’t want to criticize other’s results for fear of (insert excuse here). This is a big problem and a lot of time and resources are being wasted as a consequence, and even damaging the career of others who rely on these types of results. We are supposed to debate results in open discussion, this part of the scientific process has broken down for questionable results.
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