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To Retract or Not to Retract

This post has been updated to correct the name of the Retraction Watch post's author.

In 1953, Linus Pauling published a proposed model of DNA in PNAS, as well as a note in Nature alerting researchers to the PNAS paper, says Jeff Perkel in a Retraction Watch guest post. "That structure — a triple helix with the phosphates in the middle and the bases radiating outwards — was similar to one [James] Watson and [Francis] Crick had first advanced a year earlier and then rejected on both chemical and physical grounds," Perkel says. As it turns out, Pauling's structure was incorrect. Eventually, Watson and Crick published their own proposal for the structure of DNA, which stands today.

Pauling's missteps, many say, boil down to his hurried approach — his wanting to be first to publish in order to beat his rivals, Perkel adds. But the paper has never been retracted.

"Pauling died in 1994. His coauthor, [Robert] Corey, died in 1971. Still, the question remains: Should a paper, known for over five decades to be dead wrong, be retracted? Does it even matter?" he asks. In comments on Perkel's post, many readers replied that just because a paper is proven incorrect in future research, doesn't mean it should be retracted. Reader RW says: "You’d obliterate 90 percent of the science literature if you retracted every paper that subsequently turned out to be incorrect." R. Grant Steen agrees, saying, "If everything incorrect in the literature was retracted, a university library would fit in a broom closet."

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