“The Top 10 Retractions of 2014” appeared on the website of the life-sciences magazine The Scientist a couple of weeks back, garnering a little attention (mostly of the social-media, “Hey, look at this!” variety) but without making much of an impact. Comments were few and far between.
That seems unfortunate, given the stakes. Physicians, it has been said, bury their mistakes -- a grim joke that very nearly applies to some of the researchers whose work made the Hall of Shame. But most of the inductees are charged with committing malfeasance rather than error. (A number of them were covered here at Inside Higher Ed over the past year.)
The most egregious case? That would have to be the paper that the journal Retrovirology retracted, by a researcher who "spiked rabbit blood samples with human blood to make it look as though his HIV vaccine was working.” The runner-up is probably the situation that forced the Journal of Vibration and Control to retract 60 articles, which had been accepted for publication after receiving fraudulent “peer review” by scientists who manipulated the online submission system using up to 130 fake email accounts.
The good news is that the paper reporting on HIV vaccine work that had been tampered with seems not to have made much of an impression: it hadn’t been cited by other researchers. As for the phony peer-review gang, its leader was the identical twin brother of Taiwan’s minister of education, whose name appeared as a coauthor of some of the papers. Not long after the scandal broke, the minister resigned, while insisting that he had no idea of what his evil twin had been up to. (And you thought your family gatherings were awkward,)
The annual list (first compiled in 2013) is the work of the good people at Retraction Watch, who monitor and investigate the embarrassed announcements that publishers would rather not have to issue. Most of the stories they cover are from the sciences (chiefly natural, some social) although there is the occasional case from the humanities, where the main ground for retraction seems to be plagiarism. Or rather, problems of involving "mistaken punctuation" and "misreferencing," since euphemism prevails. (One author charged with plagiarism admitted to "misconduct in text," which is my new favorite expression.)
Besides fraudulent labwork and efforts to game the peer-review system, RW covers breaches of ethical norms in research -- the notorious "Facebook mood experiment" made the list for 2014 -- while also keeping an eye on predators lurking in the shadows around scholarly publishing. While unscrupulous academic publishers deserve all the bad press they get, they are often so brazen that it's hard to think of them as a menace. Consider the most widely noticed example in recent months: the story of a couple of computer scientists who wrote a "paper" consisting of an obscene seven-word sentence, repeated a few hundred times and incorporated into graphs and flowcharts. They submitted it to one of the sketchier journals in their field, where it appeared once the authors paid a fee. After all, the anonymous reviewer considered the paper "excellent.”
Which, in its own way, it was, though the paper is not on the top 10 list. Using the carelessness and greed of worthless journals to embarrass them may be an entertaining way to blow a few hundred bucks, but much less amusing is the thought that there must be academic libraries paying for subscriptions to said journals.
One of the year's top 10 items involved a French computer scientist who, the Retraction Watch says, “catalogued computer-generated papers that made it into more than 30 published conference proceedings between 2008 and 2013. Sixteen appeared in publications by Springer, and more than 100 were published by the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE).” The fact that the papers were computer-generated does not mean they were gibberish, since there are programs that can perform a database search and "write" a credible literature review. Still, that seems like streamlining the production of knowledge just a little too far.
The Retraction Watch site is littered with the wreckage of numerous careers, but it serves an important purpose apart from the dubious pleasures of Schadenfreude. In a recent column I wrote about Ben Goldacre's book I Think You'll Find It's a Bit More Complicated Than That (Fourth Estate), which includes a shrewd assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the peer-review system that seems germane:
"[Peer-review] is often represented as some kind of policing system for truth, but in reality some dreadful nonsense gets published, and mercifully so: shaky material of some small value can be published into the buyer-beware professional literature of academic science; then the academic readers, who are trained to appraise critically a scientific case, can make their own judgments. And it is this second stage of review by your peers -- after publication -- that is so important in science. If there are flaws in your case, responses can be written, as letters to the academic journal, or even whole new papers. If there is merit in your work, then new ideas and research will be triggered. That is the real process of science."
Retraction Watch plays a role in what Greenacre calls "post-publication peer review." In mid-December it received a John D. and Catherine T. MacAurthur Foundation grant of $400,000 to expand its operations by hiring a reporter, an editor, and a database developer. Next year's list should be interesting.
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