Saturday, March 22, 2014

Retractions due to Mistakes

This Nature Jobs story makes the non-controversial point that correcting the scientific record should be the primary concern of a scientist who has discovered an error in an already published paper. It presents a bunch of examples of scientists doing the right thing (by retracting their papers, for example) without suffering adverse consequences.

After 18 months of complex testing and re-testing, Pamela Ronald became certain that she needed to retract two high-profile papers on disease resistance in rice. The hardest part, says Ronald, a crop scientist at the University of California, Davis, was staying calm — she worried about the implications for current and past lab members and about others spending time replicating potentially faulty work.

The papers had claimed to identify a bacterial protein that could activate an immune response in rice plants with a specific receptor. But when new members of her team were unable to reproduce the results, alarm bells started ringing. Shaken, they decided that the first step was to genotype all the laboratory strains in their collection. Eventually they caught a labelling error: two of the 12 strains thought to lack the protein in question actually lacked a different protein. And the careful backtracking unearthed yet another error: the test, which they had used to verify that this protein could trigger resistance, turned out to be faulty. Despite her distress, throughout the ordeal Ronald was straightforward with journal editors and her colleagues about the likelihood of retractions. She knew that her scientific reputation depended on complete transparency about possible errors. “You just have to set aside emotions and let the scientific process pull you through,” she says.