Wednesday, July 27, 2022

On Retracting A Paper

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Nature of Science, History of Science

Ed Hessler

In "Sociobiology: So You Want To Be a Biology Professor," a blog about academic life and research, Washington University's (St. Louis), Joan E. Strassmann recounts the experience of retracting a published paper.

She wrote it to explain what happened, how she and her lab dealt with it and to "help normalize honest retractions which should probably be more common." She describes the experiment, where it went awry and then focuses "on the human side." It includes "some reflections from the very honest and brave graduate student who discovered the problem and shared it with us."

The moral to the story, according to Professor Strassmann is "Do your best. Think hard about all the ways you can verify that your experiment does what you think it does. When problems are discovered after publication, retract the paper and do the experiment over if it is a good one. Treasure and support students that show their honesty and conviction when they point out their own mistakes. There should be no shame in an honest retraction, though there will always be regret."

This is a illuminating, powerful example of what it is like to be a scientist with a commitment to the enterprise of doing the best science possible. It is also tough and tender in all the right places.

Dr. Strassmann's web site linked above includes a picture of her lab group, including a lovely dog and the nature of the lab's research (cooperation and "what this means at the extremes of sociality," the research organism and the techniques which include "behavioral, genetic, genomic, microbiological, cell biology, and field techniques," thus emphasizing the use of multiple lines of evidence.

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