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Wrong, But Doing it Right

There's a right way to be wrong, The Scientist's Kerry Grens writes. When the University of California, Davis' Pamela Ronald realized after a routine validation assay that a bacterial strain in her lab was mislabeled and that a protein assay used wasn't reliable — errors that affected two published papers — she acknowledged the mistakes in a talk.

She later retracted the papers from PLOS One and Science, earning the respect of her peers for, as Retraction Watch put it, "doing the right thing."

"On the one hand I was really very flattered I got that reaction from people, but [I was] also a little bit puzzled," Ronald tells Grens. "I never thought there was a choice."

But as Grens writes, many researchers don't take that path. She notes that a plethora of papers that relied on cell lines subsequently found to be contaminated haven't been retracted or even marked with a correction. Part of this, she adds, is that there's a stigma associated with retractions, even when it's due to an honest error.

That stigma might not be as bad as researchers fear, she says, especially if they uncover the error themselves and are upfront about it. A recent study found that researchers who retract papers do then have fewer citations than their peers, but if that researcher reported his or her own mistake, he or she didn't suffer from that citation penalty.

"It's a cultural problem we have wherein people are reluctant to make corrections, however small or large, because they think there is a stigma attached to them. And there is, in fact," says Jeffery Kelly from the Scripps Research Institute, who had to correct two papers a few years ago. But, he adds, "[if] you know your work is not right and others are struggling to repeat it, that's unconscionable."