What do you do when you realize years of your published work is built on an error?


A really excellent and sobering article from Retraction Watch popped up on RealClearScience. It is worth reading to understand what happened and why it matters.

After realizing her group’s mistake, Smith turned to a trusted colleague for advice. She says the colleague told her that “despite the fact that you really care about this receptor, no one else in the world really gives a toss about it.”

In essence, the sentiment was: Weigh the damage done by letting an error affect a few niche publications against the potential fallout and long-term career damage it would do to her and her team. And for that day Smith was almost convinced that keeping quiet to protect her team was the best option.

After hours of turmoil, Smith realized that her colleague’s line of reasoning – that she could ignore her error and just move on – was “utter bullshit,” she says. It didn’t matter whether or not anyone else cared about the receptor; feigning ignorance was wrong.

You just have to do the right thing, Smith says, “even though it’s the most painful thing you’ll ever do.” She couldn’t spend the rest of her career wondering how much damage her error would cause. She alerted her institutes about the error (both Victor Chang and the University of New South Wales, with which it’s affiliated) and, shortly after, the journals involved. She decided that total transparency was the best path.

After making that choice, “The weight just lifted off my shoulders; it was the right decision,” Smith says. She was committed to doing the right thing, but knew she’d have to face consequences.

But at the worst of it, she got an email from another researcher which strengthened her resolve. The researcher had a question about the Science Signaling paper, which she and her co-authors had asked the journal to retract. It would be, but at the time the forward facing text was unchanged. That moment drove home to her the importance of correcting the record. Scientists spend so much time and energy struggling to reproduce genuine data, Smith says, there isn’t room in the literature for known errors.


What I like most of this story is that it didn’t matter what religion or faith these scientists’ had. Science is self-correcting. These scientists had the secular qualities of honesty, integrity, and courage.

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Somewhat more cynically, publish a second paper correcting the first, and pad your CV with it. I’m told this happens, but I’m not aware of specific examples.


Rather telling to see a scientist behave responsibly like that. Then look at places like AIG and ICR which still have well known major blunders on their websites for decades after being corrected.


@Eddie, I hope you can see why I always speak of science in a “platonic” fashion despite the usual failings of scientists, based on the OP on this thread and countless other examples.

Guys check out Elizabeth Bik’s website. She does a good job sifting out fraudulent or poorly done studies.


Along the same theme …

What my retraction taught me

From the article:

That’s why I triple check all of my constructs, and I have caught mistakes on multiple occasions. It would be absolutely gut wrenching to put in a whole bunch of work (and possibly a publication) using a bad construct.

Kudos to Nicola Smith for doing the right thing. As some people said, no one may have ever noticed the mistake which makes it all the more impressive that she retracted the work anyway.

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