It’s OK, I was just Sloppy!

What’s behind paper retractions? (18)
by Adam Marcus and Ivan Oransky, Labtimes 05/2013

Photo: zettberlin / Source: PHOTOCASE

Should science tolerate frequent fumbling?

Sloppiness has become the excuse du jour in science. Consider the following recent cases we’ve covered at Retraction Watch:

  • “I can say clearly that there is no cheating,” Bente Klarlund Pedersen told the press after the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty (DCSD) issued a draft report saying she had acted in a “scientifically dishonest” and “grossly negligent” manner. “I have committed technical errors and been inattentive […] but I disagree with calling it scientific misconduct.” Her supporters agree, saying that there should be a way to categorise sloppiness that isn’t considered fraud. Then again, some of her supporters seem to want to weaken or even dismantle the DCSD rather than see scientists face more scrutiny.
  • A paper showing how human embryonic stem cells could be cloned – rushed from submission to acceptance in three days – turns out to have duplicated images that the leader of the research said were innocent mistakes.
  • A Canadian university says that “substantial data misrepresentation” described by a retraction notice – including “duplication of electrophysiological traces shown as an example of the experiment” – was unintentional.
  • A Tufts University professor makes extensive corrections to a paper, then retracts it when more errors are discovered but says that the “unintentional errors do not invalidate the results and conclusions of our paper”.

We could go on.

The implication seems to be that as long as researchers can pass off their mistakes as sloppiness, rather than intentional misconduct, they should be forgiven and carry on their work. We’re with that logic, to a point; after all, we’ve argued before that due process is much too important, no matter how apparently damning the evidence is. And as long as corrections and retraction notices are detailed, telling the whole story, science and the public are served.

Just clumsy or seriously dishonest?

But we know that’s not the case for many notices and corrections, and sloppiness isn’t such a good idea. We’ve seen “mega-corrections” that make us wonder why particular papers weren’t just retracted – just as some of the “it was just sloppiness” explanations make us wonder exactly where scientists draw the distinction between clumsiness and misconduct.

It’s not just us Retraction Watchers who are growing concerned, either. “Too many sloppy mistakes are creeping into scientific papers,” Nature’s editors wrote last year (vol. 483: 509). “Lab heads must look more rigorously at the data – and at themselves.”

They add, “Across the life sciences, handling corrections that have arisen from avoidable errors in manuscripts has become an uncomfortable part of the publishing process.”

Should such sloppiness be rewarded with more grants, and promotions? As Nature writes, “It is unacceptable for lab heads – who are happy to take the credit for good work – to look at raw data for the first time only when problems in published studies are reported.”

Nature also recommends allowing online commenting, with links to comments or corrections that appear elsewhere. And finally, “There should also be increased scope to publish fuller results from an experiment, and subsequent negative or positive corroborations.” In other words, tell the whole scientific story.

Look at that, we actually agree with Nature!

(The authors run the blog Retraction Watch:

Last Changed: 17.09.2013