Nathan Georgette experienced the peaks and troughs of a life in science, all before he was old enough to buy a beer.
And despite the typical stigma of retracting a scientific paper, Georgette, a fourth-year student at Harvard Medical School, is doing just fine — serving as a model to those many decades his senior.
It unfolded like this: In 2007, when Georgette was just 16, he published his first scientific paper, an article on immunity that appeared in the Internet Journal of Epidemiology — and which helped him win a prestigious high school scholarship. In 2009, Georgette published a second paper, this time in PLOS ONE, based on his earlier work.
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Georgette continued his research as a Harvard undergraduate, and it was then, in 2012, that he realized he’d made a mistaken assumption in his first article, one that wasn’t fatal to that 2007 paper — but was to the PLOS ONE paper.
Georgette could have quietly let the matter drop. But rather than ignore his error, Georgette asked PLOS ONE to retract his paper.
At the time, we commended Georgette for his “rigor and transparency” and for having the courage to do the right thing, even if it meant halving his list of publications. Even many established scientists might not have had the guts to do what he did. In an editorial, the Boston Globe agreed.
Now Georgette, in his final year of medical school, is applying for residency positions. So, have his job prospects suffered because of his honesty? In a word, no.
“When making the decision to retract, I had anticipated that it would hurt my job prospects,” Georgette told STAT. “I was honestly a bit surprised to find that the retraction has had a neutral-to-positive effect overall on my prospects. I think it helps when one can explain their lessons learned and ways they have implemented appropriate changes. But in all cases, interviewers have really appreciated the honesty.”
And that’s not because he is hiding the blemish, as some scientists are known to do.
He mentions the retraction on his resume, as “(author self-retracted article),” and welcomes the chance to tell interviewers what happened.
The experience, he told STAT, “emphasized the importance of critical self-reflection at all stages of my work — both clinical and research. Within that self-reflection, I particularly want to challenge any assumptions.”
Georgette said he also learned to solicit input from more senior scientists, something he’s done more of in recent years, to avoid oversights in his research going forward.
Ultimately, his advice to anyone in a similar bind: “Do what’s right; you’ll thank yourself later. It’s clear to me that publicly correcting the scientific record is the right thing to do.”
We couldn’t agree more. We try to make a point of calling out the do-gooders, including a whole category of posts on Retraction Watch that are about such stories — the researcher who realized his lab had ordered the wrong mice, for example.
And Georgette’s positive experience with retraction isn’t an anomaly. Scientists who retract and declare their honest errors are not likely to see the dips in citations that those who retract for fraud typically see.
Ultimately, if anything, Georgette said his medical training has underscored the importance of a trustworthy scientific literature. “Critical decisions are based on research articles of all types; in some especially complex or unusual cases, in vitro data might be all that’s available to guide treatment,” he said. “Don’t use a perceived lack of importance or impact as a reason to let a crucial error slide; you never know when a researcher or physician might be influenced by your findings.”