Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Science magazine and retracted papers

Since Science isn't going to run my letter to the editor, I'll just vent about it here. In last week's issue, Science ran a news article about the distressing tendency of retracted papers to linger on in the literature, sometimes still picking up citations long after the retraction. In the old days of strictly print journals, the excuse was that someone could stumble upon the original hardcopy of the retracted paper and not realize that it had been withdrawn. Now, though, the problem continues even in on-line versions of the papers. The Science reporters had expressed surprise that retraction notices don't always catch everyone's attention.

I find this very ironic, because Science has been part of the problem. Back in the dark days of late 2002, the Beasley Commission officially released their report, demonstrating beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jan Hendrik Schon was a complete fraud, and that his major papers needed to be retracted. The retractions happened almost immediately. Fast forward to December 2003, when two students writing final papers for my course mistakenly cite Schon's Science papers, despite their retraction over a year before. Why did the students not realize that the papers had been withdrawn? Because google had linked directly to the pdf versions of the papers, and Science had not marked up the pdf files to indicate the retraction. So, I used the on-line feedback form to tell Science about this problem. No response beyond an automated "Thank you for your email" formletter. Fast forward again to December, 2004. Again a student cites a Schon Science paper in the final paper for my course. Over two years after the fact, and the pdf files still don't indicate the retraction. I sent another letter, with a similar response.

Science has finally fixed this problem sometime in the intervening 15 months or so. I just find it funny that they seem to shift the blame onto their readership, when they themselves aggravated this problem by being too lazy to fix their pdf files for over two years. For Pete's sake - we're only talking about a handful of papers. It would've taken all of ten minutes to append the retraction to each file. Ahh well.


Comatose brooder said...

Excellent post. I, myself am a petty victim of Jan Hendrik Schon fraud. I have given a link to this post in my blog and i hope that you wont mind it.

Douglas Natelson said...

You really should read the Lucent report. It's appalling. I consider anything ever authored or co-authored by Schon to be suspect, going all the way back to his doctoral work in Germany. Even if it hasn't all been officially retracted, I have every reason to believe that he was cheating long before getting caught.

Admin said...

Very good article. I prefer to read this science blog.