The Times Higher Education magazine recently conducted an anonymous poll asking scientists what they would do if they discovered a serious error in one of their own high-impact publications. Of the 220 respondents, 5% stated that they would do nothing and hope that the mistake went unnoticed. A further 9% said that they would act only if the error was pointed out to them by a colleague.
Given the pressure on researchers to publish, some believe that these anonymous self-selected responses may underestimate the true extent of the problem. While a minor error can be addressed fairly easily with a correction, a more serious error that affects the conclusions of a paper will almost certainly necessitate a retraction. Since retractions are also used to clean up the literature after instances of research misconduct, many authors may be reluctant to own up to genuine mistakes for fear of being tarred with the same brush.
Some publishers are experimenting with new ways to address this issue. The JAMA Network, for example, now allows authors to retract a paper containing an error and replace it immediately with a corrected version. However, in addition to reputational damage, the financial costs of repeating flawed experiments can themselves be a deterrent to owning up. Limited research funding may also make errors more likely to occur – and more difficult to detect – by discouraging researchers from attempting to replicate their own or others’ findings in the first place.
Ryan co-runs Aspire Scientific, a dynamic, forward-thinking medical writing agency. Ryan has a passion for innovation, science and ethical communication.