Retraction Watch as a Tool to Promote Responsible Conduct in Research
By Marianne Evola
Recently, I have started encouraging students to subscribe to Retraction Watch. Retraction Watch is a website and organization that tracks publications that have been retracted from the scientific literature. Some of the retractions are due to honest error and are appropriately retracted by the creators. Some result from authorship or data disputes. However, too many retractions result from discovery of research misconduct, data manipulation, fabrication and/or plagiarism. Although I have mixed feelings about the website and service, as I will discuss below, I have decided that Retraction Watch can serve as a tool for providing healthy reminders for making responsible research decisions. I believe that one of the critical roles of responsible research training is to provide students with healthy reminders of good research practice that could help to offset the intense pressures associated with building a research career.
We harshly judge colleagues who have been found guilty of research misconduct. Rightfully so, when you consider the enormous damage that they do to their discipline, their colleagues and the research community. However, even with all the cases of misconduct that I have read about, I do not believe that anyone pursues an advanced degree in any area of research with an intention to lie, cheat or steal their way to success. I am convinced that people underestimate the magnitude of pressure that they will face and then, as pressure to produce continues to grow, some eventually succumb to the pressure and make bad choices.
Academic research careers put researchers under constant pressure to be increasingly productive. Students will face ever increasing job and life demands as their careers evolve but will have progressively more responsibility for responsible decision-making, often with less direct oversight or supervision. As young researchers, our students are concerned for their own welfare and success. However, our students may fail to realize that with success comes more responsibility. In the academic world, these responsibilities may include teaching; faculty committee work; research; regular publication; and securing grants to support your research, provide financial stability for your family, and even support a research team and all of their families. When I consider how difficult and competitive it is to obtain research funding and the professional pressure faced by academic researchers, I'm rather proud of the relative infrequency of research misconduct. As a large global community, researchers demonstrate notable integrity.
That being said, we have recognized that we have some problems in our research communities. With that recognition, we are seeing a growth in responsible research education as well as community policing and accountability. Retraction Watch is a natural evolution of the accountability movement. Although, we are limited in our ability to supervise the day-to-day activities of all of our colleagues, we have realized that we need to hold our colleagues accountable when they make bad decisions. Retraction Watch is an effective accountability tool. As such, I have begun to encourage RCR trainees to subscribe to Retraction Watch as a means to raise their awareness of responsible research conduct. They have chosen a profession in which they are under constant pressure to be increasingly productive. They need to seek healthy input that will counterbalance that pressure.
It is important for students to realize that we have some problems in the world of research. Junior scientists pursue research positions across the country and even across the world. Although applying and interviewing for research positions across great distances is normal, the interview process provides very limited time and opportunity to assess the training environment. Therefore, it is critical that junior scientists are aware that the research world has some bad practitioners and thus it is critical to assess these job opportunities with critical eyes that are unprejudiced by our admiration for our research heroes. Sadly, some scientists have held positions of great influence and reputations of high productivity before their widespread misconduct was discovered. Retraction Watch has a Leaderboard that lists the 30 researchers with the highest numbers of retractions - researchers who once held positions of influence but have since been revealed as frauds. It is therefore critical to actively choose your research position and not passively hope to be chosen.
Currently, the number 1 position on Retraction Watch's Leaderboard is held by Yoshitaka Fujii, who is currently listed as having 183 retractions. The website lists the area of research he addressed as anesthesiology and analgesia, and cites investigations into his misconduct that demonstrated widespread data fabrication and manipulation as well as failure to obtain IRB approval for conducting research with human subjects. Also high on the list is Diederik Stapel from the social sciences. The website says he once was dean of his college, had international influence in his field and is now listed as number 4 on the Leaderboard. He currently has 57 retractions and, by his own admission, he engaged in widespread fabrication of data, negatively impacting colleagues around the globe as well as directly damaging the careers of his own graduate students by providing them with fabricated data to be included in their doctoral dissertations. And, similar to Yoshitaka Fujii, he published research on human subjects without obtaining IRB approval, yet for both, it is questionable as to whether the data was fabricated or whether research with humans was actually conducted. Regardless, these two cases and the rest of the list demonstrate that choosing a mentor based on their productivity may not protect junior researchers from entering a toxic research environment. Perhaps raising awareness to responsible research and misconduct will empower students to make informed career decisions.
However, even though I now encourage students to start looking at Retraction Watch, I'm still not sure that it is a great way to teach them about responsible research conduct. It definitely familiarizes them to the dark deeds of our colleagues. Furthermore, due to the intriguing nature of scandal, it may encourage them to integrate the study of research integrity and misconduct in their career development. However, reading about scandal fails to provide students with the skills to make good research decisions. Furthermore, scandal does not educate students about what pressures, environments or missing skills contributed to bad decisions or what information/skills could have resulted in productive choices. I think that Retraction Watch is a great tool for raising awareness about misconduct, but students also need to seek out training on skills that will enhance their research.
Finally, although I find the publications of Retraction Watch to be interesting and sadly revealing, the sheer frequency of Retraction Watch email can be discouraging. Although I realize that compared to the size of the global research community, misconduct is a relatively rare occurrence, daily exposure to multiple cases of research misconduct can be disheartening or, worse, could habituate and desensitize the reader to the damage of misconduct. Periodically, I find myself pondering how people with the comparable training and greater experience than me could have made such unconscionable decisions, especially when I look at Retraction Watch's Leaderboard. Were they so self-involved that they did not care about the damage that they were doing to their colleagues and their disciplines? Or, did they just not understand the responsibilities and goals of a research career? If they simply never understood the meaning of being a scientist, how could they have progressed through so much education and failed to comprehend the rigor of research? Then again, part of maturing as a researcher is to become ever more skeptical and cynical. So perhaps a bit of disillusionment is part of research maturity, as long as you never lose your enchantment and excitement over discovery.
So, how do you sign-up for Retraction Watch? You simply go to the Retraction Watch website and enter your email address. Then daily you will receive multiple emails on the latest retractions and investigations from Retraction Watch. From my experience, I generally receive 2-4 emails a day from the organization. The retractions range from honest errors to discovery of misconduct. However, if you don't want the hassle of more email cluttering up your Inbox, even perusing the website from time to time will provide reminders of the accountability that our colleagues face when they make poor decisions.
While deciding whether or not I would discuss Retraction Watch in my monthly column, I contemplated the utility of the tool. I was sitting on my couch at home in the evening perusing YouTube videos of Colorado off-roading trails with my significant other. While relaxing in the evening, I was drafting my first ideas for the column and two Retraction Watch emails were delivered to my Inbox. The working-at-home scenario that I describe is pretty common in academics. We often work in the evening, processing data, drafting ideas and monitoring email in front of the television. As I jotted down notes, I thought about my reaction to the Retraction Watch emails popping up on my screen. I thought about how it would impact me if, rather than making casual notes, I was making a critical career decision under pressure. What if I was working with disappointing data and making a decision as to whether to manipulate that data and/or lie in a publication? Would a random yet timely arrival of a Retraction Watch email make me reconsider a bad choice? I decided, yes, it could. It could prevent me from making a devastating decision to engage in misconduct. It could remind me what it means to pursue a research career and the integrity needed to contribute to discovery. It would remind me why I decided to be a scientist, and that misconduct had never previously been a consideration. So, although I have a love/hate appreciation for Retraction Watch, I realized that my subscription could serve to protect me when I was working under pressure. As such, I would encourage students to utilize the tool to promote their research integrity and protect them from the career pressures that they will undoubtedly face.
Marianne Evola is senior administrator in the Responsible Research area of the Office of the Vice President for Research. She is a monthly contributor to Scholarly Messenger.