he National Football League, speaking (how else?) through its lawyers, is demanding that the New York Times retract an article published last week that revealed the league had failed to report all concussion cases, despite claiming their data were comprehensive, and also pointed out alleged links between the league and Big Tobacco.
The Times has already said it has no reason to retract anything. But this is not the NFL’s first time at this rodeo, to mix sports metaphors. When Dr. Bennet Omalu finally published his groundbreaking 2005 paper about brain damage in a former professional football player, he thought the scientific community, and the NFL, would have to pay attention. That happened, kind of — but not in the way Omalu expected.
Instead, the neuropathologist was astonished to find his study, in the journal Neurosurgery, attacked by a group of purported experts. The group, led by a rheumatologist (doctors who study joints, not brains) on the New York Jets payroll, assailed Omalu’s article and demanded that the journal retract the article. It didn’t — and, more than a decade later, Omalu’s signal finding has been vindicated.
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Politically motivated calls for retractions go far beyond football, however. Last year, a group of physicians pressed the New England Journal of Medicine to walk back a paper it had published which found e-cigarettes to be as harmful, if not more so, than conventional smokes.
In November, the BMJ also found itself under fire after it published an article criticizing new dietary guidelines. In a letter signed by dozens of experts worldwide, the Center for Science in the Public Interest declared the article, by Nina Teicholz, a journalist, to be “so riddled with errors, we urge the BMJ to retract it, not only to inform your readers, but also to protect the BMJ’s credibility.”
And in 2014, Dr. Walter Willett, a prominent Harvard nutrition expert, told Science that not only should the Annals of Internal Medicine pull a flawed paper about dietary fats that required corrections, but it should issue a press release announcing the move, as it had done when the article appeared in print.
The number of retractions from the scientific literature now totals about 700 papers per year, up nearly twentyfold from less than two decades ago. Although retractions represent only a tiny sliver of the 2 million-odd published articles annually, some observers believe many more papers are flawed enough to warrant withdrawal.
That’s certainly true. Undoubtedly, some fraudsters remain undetected, and some researchers would rather sit on grave errors than subject their work to the pain of removal. But when it comes to calls for retraction, we think advocates are better off exercising restraint.
That may sound odd coming from the cofounders of Retraction Watch. But we rarely see anything good — including the sought-after retraction — coming from these petitions and public demands.
Calls for retraction often seem politically motivated, and while that doesn’t necessarily make them wrong, it gives more heft to the “Oh, you’re just conflicted” arguments that leave everyone throwing up their hands, engaged in a shouting match. Scientists, journal editors, and universities often appear to be backed into a corner, reacting defensively, and sometimes not even making corrections.
The sense one gets is that the people calling for these retractions — often followed by the word “immediately” — are less interested in correcting the scientific record than they are in punishing those whose views they don’t share.
That doesn’t mean the criticisms are always wrong, by any stretch. But retractions are a kind of nuclear option in scientific self-correction — reserved, as the Committee on Publication Ethics recommends, for cases in which “the findings are unreliable, either as a result of misconduct (e.g. data fabrication) or honest error (e.g. miscalculation or experimental error),” duplicate publication, plagiarism, and unethical research — and their main purpose is, in fact, to clean up the record, not act as a scarlet letter, despite whatever stigma retractions have.
Far better, we think, would be politely but firmly pointing out the alleged errors in a paper, publicly so that there is a record, and then giving authors and journals some reasonable amount of time to respond. If they don’t, that tells the story. Any scientist who won’t respond to questions about his or her work needs to find another way to make a living.
In the case of the NFL’s stance on concussions, it’s pretty clear the league would rather whine about the referees than engage in a productive dialogue with its critics. But calling for a game-over isn’t good for its athletes, and it’s not good for science.