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Retraction Watch Still Going Strong After 8 Years

Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus, founders of Retraction Watch, spoke to University Affairs about why they started their blog, why scientific misconduct still happens, and what can be done to create greater transparency.

Initially, Oransky says, the two launched the blog in order to talk about the scandal of American anesthesiologist Scott Reuben, who notoriously fabricated data in more than 20 papers and ended up in federal prison. But then, he adds, "we honestly didn't think at the time that there would be all that much to write about. It turned out to be a far bigger story than we had initially envisioned."

That's because journals weren't doing a good enough job of telling the public about retractions, Marcus says. So he and Oransky took it upon themselves to shine some light on that side of the academic publishing world.

"It's pretty clear that we have more retractions today because more people are looking [for them]. Papers are online now and that wasn't true 20 years ago. There is advanced detection software. There are a million eyeballs on all these papers now," Oransky says. "But there is also evidence that misconduct is on the rise.... About two-thirds of the time retractions are due to misconduct. We see things like image manipulation, falsifications, fake data and plagiarism."

Unfortunately, it's also still really hard to tell when a paper has been retracted, he adds. Journal editors blame lawyers, but Oransky believes journals should stand up to legal threats and "not be bullied."

"Our feeling is that universities are conflicted," Marcus adds. "They have an incentive not to come clean about the misbehavior of their faculty because of the hit it may deliver to their public image. I think it's a problem. I believe that the public has an absolute right to know what universities are doing with their money."

Marcus and Oransky note that while misconduct isn't like to ever stop, there does need to be greater transparency around retractions. "The quicker that journals respond to retractions, the better off science will be," Marcus says.

"We have to create incentives that aren't all about publishing papers in high-impact journals," Oransky suggests. "We need to create incentives that reward the kind of behavior we really want to see in science. We want data sharing. We want open science. We want honest science. Let's incentivize all of that."