From Ivory Towers to Public Tribunes

Posted by Kasra

This is in continuation of a post by my old friend and classmate in his new exciting blog Genophoria. He expressed his rightful concerns about the rise of “Entertainment Science”, where he says scientists are coming out of their Ivory towers and shouting out their impressive and sometimes controversial findings to the public. It often happens that these controversial findings, or at least their conclusions in that regard are wrong. Scientists can accept that. Science is by nature self-correcting. But at the same time, for the public, they lose their credibility as truth-seekers which they claim to be.

It just happens that at this very time, PNAS has published a study on the statistics of retracted publications. Let’s not exaggerate. The percentage of retracted papers compared to number of publications is very very small. Still, their results were a bit surprising at least to me: 67% of them were retracted due to misconduct, either fraud or suspected fraud. Only 20% or so were due to error. Many questions arise: Has it always been like this? Only is it because there are more publications now and more screening? What percentage goes unnoticed? Most importantly, what were the underlying reasons for these fraudulent publications? Were they desperate Postdocs or PIs trying to win a Cell or a Nature to renew a fellowship or a grant? Or were they seeking something further, a socioeconomical, political or cultic purpose beyond science? These questions seek immediate attention and hopefully clear answers. Without any doubt, the fight for budget has become fiercer; and no, most scientists can no longer live in ivory towers, indifferent to the public and their attention – if they ever did. By the way, hadn’t you said earlier that by turning away from the public we turned from high-ranked academics into socially excluded geeks? We need to interact with the public, to rebuke false claims and promote logical thinking. I guess as you say, we are doing it wrong.

If the scientific community is willing to share the excitement of discoveries and controversies with the public, it should be more stringent in the peer-reviewing process of such claims. In retrospect, how many of the fraudulent retracted papers can be labelled as editorial or peer-review failures? Publishing in high-impact journals is getting harder and harder. But maybe during the peer-review, there should be a new focus on skepticism and a shrewd eye for biased claims, besides asking for more and more control experiments. At the same time, when presenting discoveries to the press, more transparency and accuracy about their nature and details are needed, so that a susceptibility SNP doesn’t turn into a cancer gene and an in vitro-tested compound into its ultimate cure.

Fang FC, Steen RG, & Casadevall A (2012). Misconduct accounts for the majority of retracted scientific publications. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America PMID: 23027971