This column frequently takes publishers and journals to task for handling retractions with slippery fingers and mealy mouths. Today, however, we come not to bury a publisher, but to praise one, to misquote the Bard.
That’s because the 77-year-old American Diabetes Association (ADA) and its flagship journal, Diabetes, have been champions of decisive action when it comes to policing their literature. Over the past few years, the ADA and its journals have stood up to angry scientists and their lawyers and taken a strong stance in the face of wobbly-kneed institutions. And so we are giving them the first-ever Watchdogs DiRT — Doing the Right Thing — Award.
The DiRT joins the John Maddox Prize, the Research Parasite Award, and other like-minded honors that are not so much about doing wonderful science as about standing up for the best interests of the research enterprise. (We should point out that sometimes, standing up against calls for retraction is doing the right thing.) We plan to give out this award annually, and we welcome nominations from readers. Anyone involved in science — be it a publisher, author, editor, university, or whistleblower — who has fought the good fight at considerable effort and perhaps risk, is eligible for a DiRT.
The most recent example of the ADA’s doing the right thing involves Kathrin Maedler, a once-prominent diabetologist at the University of Bremen, Germany, more than a dozen of whose papers have come under fire for image problems. In 2014, Diabetes slapped a correction on one of Maedler’s articles over a duplicated image, but upgraded that to an expression of concern last August, citing concerns about “the reliability of the data.”
The society then asked Maedler’s institution to investigate. Bremen returned a verdict of negligence rather than malfeasance, and called on Maedler’s group to provide Diabetes with another correction.
That step might have been enough for some groups (Dayenu, as they say at Passover), but an ADA ethics panel wasn’t satisfied. It rejected the university’s suggestion on the grounds that “concerns regarding the reliability of the data cannot be sufficiently mitigated by publishing another erratum with another image; therefore, the Panel recommends to retract the article, and ADA has accepted this recommendation.” (Maedler has lost her prestigious Heisenberg professorship in the affair, although she is still affiliated with Bremen.)
But the ADA really earned our attention when it took on Mario Saad. Saad, of the University of Campinas, in São Paulo, Brazil, sued the association for defamation in 2015 after Diabetes issued expressions of concern on four of his articles. The ADA could have taken down the notices and saved itself some legal fees and headaches, but it chose to hold firm. And that proved to be the right tack. The United States District Court of Massachusetts threw out the suit, noting that the ADA had been “measured and professional” in the tone of the notices, which it described as part of an “ongoing scientific discourse” about Saad’s work. The discourse, at least as far as those papers are concerned, is now over. Diabetes eventually retracted them. And Saad’s overall retraction count is now up to a dozen.
If only other journals and their publishers would take the reliability of their output so seriously. Many cut and run at the whisper of a suit. Others push on, but the process of retraction drags on longer than it should, and results in wishy-washy removal notices more often than anyone would like, because of such legal threats. Sadly, we’re more like to encounter the flaccid reaction researcher David Allison and colleagues got from dozens of journals when he urged them, without success, to correct obvious errors. As Allison’s group wrote in Nature last year, “After attempting to address more than 25 of these errors with letters to authors or journals, and identifying at least a dozen more, we had to stop — the work took too much of our time.”
So in the hope that we can encourage more good but difficult — not to mention expensive — behavior, we are delighted to bestow the inaugural DiRT Award on the ADA.
Do you know a person or organization who should be considered for next year’s award? Nominate them here.
After all, cleaning up the literature is a messy job, but someone has to do it.