Ivan Oransky, M.D., is executive editor of Reuters Health and treasurer of the Association of Health Care Journalists’ board of directors. He blogs at Embargo Watch and at Retraction Watch. He also holds appointments as an adjunct professor of journalism and clinical assistant professor of medicine at New York University.
Reporters have always relied on sources to give them story tips and documents, and to keep them honest. Today, however, some of what used to happen in one-on-one phone calls and meetings is now happening in public, in an acknowledgement that we’re performing “users-know-more-than-we-do” journalism.
That’s certainly true at Retraction Watch, which Adam Marcus and I founded in August 2010 to “track retractions as a window into the scientific process.” Science is too specialized for two individual reporters to cover, so we rely heavily on our thousands of regular readers, who have deep knowledge of particular fields.
Our readers frequently leave comments that add to or advance stories. Take the case of Jatinder Ahluwalia. Our first post about the (now former) University of East London researcher was in November 2010, reporting that he and his colleagues had retracted a Nature paper. The notice referred to a University College London report that wasn’t yet available, but while we waited for word of that, a researcher who had earlier criticized the Nature paper wrote us with comments. They were so good, we turned them into their own post.
It was a month later, when we posted on the UCL report – which found that Ahluwalia had faked results, and probably sabotaged his colleagues – that our community really kicked into gear. One commenter asked whether we knew Ahluwalia had decided to study plagiarism – the one type of scientific misconduct which he didn’t seem to have committed – at his new post at the University of East London. That of course become a post.
And then we received an email from a loyal reader, including two documents about which he said it was “clearly important that your readership be made aware.” Those documents turned out to be letters describing Ahluwalia’s misconduct at Cambridge which, unbeknownst to the institutions where he later trained and worked, had dismissed him the first time he tried to earn a PhD. We agreed with our tipster, and posted them. Ahluwalia’s story has continued to unravel since then; he has left his post at UEL and now risks losing his PhD because the paper it was based on has been retracted.
Some readers will take apart images, often letting us know what’s wrong with a retracted paper even when a journal’s notice is frustratingly opaque. Others will give us important context and background to flesh out posts. And still others end up contributing guest posts, for example telling us what it’s like to have your paper plagiarized.
Among those users who often know more than we do are anonymous whistleblowers, whom some journal editors insist on ignoring. (We applaud the fact that Nature pays attention to anonymous tips.) We think blowing them off is a bad idea. We investigate as many of their tips as we have time for, and we post about those that check out.
Our readers also use the comments to let us know when we’ve made an error, or missed a retraction by a lab about whom we’re writing. We correct our mistakes, and publicly thank the commenters.
In short, we couldn’t do Retraction Watch without our readers. A big part of our role is to simply give voice to the community of people who want to fact-check science.
And anyone can make use of the tools of investigative journalism. You don’t have to be a journalist to file a Freedom of Information request, for example, as I pointed out in a talk at ScienceOnline2012. (My crowdsourced resource list is available here.)
We all benefit from having more engaged eyeballs on our work. That goes for science journals, too. It’s not surprising that last year set a record for retractions, and we look forward to covering more in the coming years. Retractions, after all, aren’t necessarily a bad thing – they mean that science is correcting itself, as it’s supposed to.
Science Online NYC (SoNYC) is a monthly discussion series held in New York City where invited panellists and the in-person and online audiences talk about a particular topic related to how science is carried out and communicated online. For this month’s SoNYC the topic for discussion is: Setting the research record straight. We’re looking at issues such as retractions and plagiarism and how they relate to real or perceived increases in research misconduct. More details about this month’s SoNYC can be found here.
To complement the event, we’re running a series of guest posts discussing what steps publications are taking to deal with fraudulent research practices and what is being done to investigate and deter such practices. We’ve already heard from Richard Van Noorden, Assistant News Editor at Nature. He gave us an overview of what retractions can tell us about setting the research record straight, highlighting some recent high profile cases of retraction, explaining why retraction rates appear to be increasing. We also compiled a Storify from a session at February’s AAAS meeting in Vancouver on Global Challenges to Peer Review which touched on some of the challenges faced by journal editors. Next we heard from Dorothy Clyde (Dot), Senior Editor at Nature Protocols, explaining the role an editor plays in avoiding plagiarism, giving advice to all parties.