Scientific publishing’s new weapon for the next crisis: the rapid correction

Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz and James Heathers at STATNews: “If evidence of errors does emerge, the process for correcting or withdrawing a paper tends to be alarmingly long. Late last year, for example, David Cox, the IBM director of the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab, discovered that his name was included as an author on two papers he had never written. After he wrote to the journals involved, it took almost three months for them to remove his name and the papers themselves. In cases of large-scale research fraud, correction times can be measured in years.

Imagine now that the issue with a manuscript is not a simple matter of retracting a fraudulent paper, but a more complex methodological or statistical problem that undercuts the study’s conclusions. In this context, requests for clarification — or retraction — can languish for years. The process can outlast both the tenure of the responsible editor, resetting the clock on the entire ordeal, or the journal itself can cease publication, leaving an erroneous article in the public domain without oversight, forever….

This situation must change, and change quickly. Any crisis that requires scientific information in a hurry will produce hurried science, and hurried science often includes miscalculated analyses, poor experimental design, inappropriate statistical models, impossible numbers, or even fraud. Having the agility to produce and publicize work like this without having the ability to correct it just as quickly is a curiously persistent oversight in the global scientific enterprise. If corrections occur only long after the research has already been used to treat people across the world, what use are they at all?

There are some small steps in the right direction. The open-source website PubPeer aggregates formal scientific criticism, and when shoddy research makes it into the literature, hordes of critics may leave comments and questions on the site within hours. Twitter, likewise, is often abuzz with spectacular scientific critiques almost as soon as studies go up online.

But these volunteer efforts are not enough. Even when errors are glaring and obvious, the median response from academic journals is to deal with them grudgingly or not at all. Academia in general takes a faintly disapproving tone of crowd-sourced error correction, ignoring the fact that it is often the only mechanism that exists to do this vital work.

Scientific publishing needs to stop treating error-checking as a slightly inconvenient side note and make it a core part of academic research. In a perfect world, entire departmental sections would be dedicated to making sure that published research is correct and reliable. But even a few positions would be a fine start. Young researchers could be given kudos not just for every citation in their Google scholar profile but also for every post-publication review they undertake….(More)”