Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Science Drama: Another lesson in Scientific Processes

A group of molecular plant biologists recently retracted their research article that was published in Science Magazine 2005 (volume 309, p. 1694). Read original retraction here. There were several gross anomalies with the data that the first author mis-interpreted. The second through fifth authors issued a complete retraction of the article, the findings, and all interpretations of the data. The original first author does not co-sign the retraction.

What does all of this mean?? Drama, serious drama. It seems the first author was very liberal in his/her data generation, analysis, and/or interpretation. In other words, this smells a bit like academic dishonesty. Obviously, someone was running some new tests and realized that the new information wasn’t jiving with the previous info published 2 years ago. So, they did a double check. They pulled up all of the old data and ran it again. And I bet they ran it a few times more and perhaps asked other people to look over the data, too.

In science, integrity matters. Other scientists will read your work and study your technique for his/her own research. Policy makers and others will likely use the information to make decisions.

Therefore, it is imperative to present your data as honestly as you can. Most scientists I know are very meticulous and very obsessed with making sure everything they do and report is accurate, precise, and honest. You don’t report findings that you simply did not find. You don’t invent data. You don’t invent subjects. You don't clone data (copy and paste the exact same data that may have been legitimately collected so that your sample size looks larger than what it is). These are no no’s. Usually, co-authors, graduate students, and in-house and funding oversight committees keep their eyes and ears open for such rats.

But there is also a process called peer-review and critique. Scientists share their ideas and work with many people. Critique is the nature of how we do and learn things. We look for holes, gaps, and weak spots. We point them out to each other and often recommend or help to patch them up. After all, science is an endeavor to learn more about our natural world. This retraction is a part of that process. Science is about updating our knowledge as we discover new things.

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