Holding People Accountable for Retractions


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    Last week acclaimed cell biologist and cartoonist Leonid Schneider wrote to Retraction Watch with a very smart idea for holding principle investigators (PIs) and institutions accountable for research paper retractions. I mentioned in a previous post that an increasing number of research papers have been retracted in recent times because it emerged that data manipulation, plagiarism and fraud were at play. Often the fall person, the first or middle author has suffered a little in their career while the senior PI and the university or institution has been able to get away with it relatively scot-free (though this has not always been the case). Many laboratories have become multiple re-offenders with a litany of retractions. Websites like Retraction Watch and PubPeer can only do so much to shed light on scientific misconduct since few regulations are in place to stop such bad behavior.

    In order to bring in some justice and to stem the rising tide of retractions, Schneider suggested that funding agencies should include a new refund clause in every application and force every applicant to sign it. The clause would enforce a monetary fine on the laboratory and the university if a paper is retracted. Since research funding is usually distributed among the PI's salary, personnel salary, university overhead and equipment, the funding agency would have to take money out of all these elements in order to make the reimbursement. Such a reimbursement would need to come ultimately out of the university's expenses. The refund to the grant agency would have to be commensurate to the impact of the paper being retracted - with retractions from Nature, Cell and Science constituting a heavier fine than from smaller journals. Furthermore, since big funding agencies also play a role in paying for scientific journals, they should play the biggest part in pressurizing editors of prestigious magazines to come clean about their mistakes and admit to publications that turn out to be false.

    Obviously there may be academics who find such a reform controversial or even downright abhorrent given that such an overhaul could cost them a life time of work and leave their labs empty. Perhaps laboratories that suffer a one-time retraction but demonstrate that they are very careful with subsequent publications can be provided an opportunity to appeal for a remit. The best outcome is for all PIs to encourage a sense of ethical standard in their students and postdocs and to pay attention to how data is interpreted and published. Graduate schools may do better by putting all new students through an "oath swearing" ceremony, to drill the principles of abiding by ethical scientific conduct into every new scientist. This would be rather like medical students swearing by the Hippocratic Oath in the White Coat ceremony. In an ideal world I will not have to read or write about scientific paper retractions again. But we will have to wait and see if regulatory reforms can ever take off.

    Read Leonid Schneider's article on Retraction Watch: What if universities had to agree to refund grants whenever there was a retraction?