Responsible research, even when you’re wrong

I follow Retraction Watch, a blog dedicated to reporting academic misconduct in scientific publishing.  I’ve learned that there are two types of retractions: the malicious, intentional acts such as destroying data and plagiarism, and the unintentional mistakes.  This post is about the unintentional mistakes.

As I glance through the new posts, I am always a bit apprehensive.  Will I come across any familiar names?  Will they find something directly related to my sub-field that invalidates my own findings?  Will I find my name there due to some code bug or mathematical error?

I am a computer scientist who has striven to publish datasets and code along with publications.  It is rarely the case where I work with a dataset that is not publicly available.  In some sense, this makes my work easier to justify – I can provide all that’s needed to reproduce my results.  But still, we’re all human, and unintentional mistakes may happen.

Today, my apprehension was transformed into respect after reading this blog post about authors who retracted their own paper in light of additional experiments they conducted post-publication.

“[T]hese things can happen in every lab:” Mutant plant paper uprooted after authors correct their own findings | Retraction Watch

The authors submitted a retraction notice that included the experimental data that showed that their results described a different mutation than the one they intended.  Not only did they take action to retract the paper, but the last author, Dr.Hidetoshi Iida, notified researchers using the plant seeds that reportedly contained the mutant.

In a publish or perish world, it takes a lot of guts to do the right thing.  This retraction, in fact, contributed to the progress of scientific knowledge.  I applaud these authors, and I hope that other honest mistakes are corrected in similar ways.


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