Scientists reveal what they learnt from their biggest mistakes

when Arnold’s group at the California Institute of Technology failed to replicate the results due to data missing from one of her student’s lab notes, she requested a retraction from the journal.

“I did not want anyone to waste their time trying to reproduce our results,” says Arnold.

While she was widely praised for her candid apology, it was another researcher who inspired Arnold to be upfront about her mistakes.

“Someone I admire retracted a very important paper when I was a young scientist,” says Arnold. “I wanted to pay that lesson forward.”

From last year. I think that this is a positive step towards destigmatizing using retractions as a way to correct honest mistakes.


Relevant perspective about using retractions to address mistakes.

  1. Retraction is a blunt instrument that is often inadequate, for example if it does not clearly delineate the difference between authors who have themselves identified an honest error in their work and requested a retraction, and fraudulent misrepresentation of work only brought to light by a whistleblower. More complete permanent retraction notices will address this, describing why the retraction was issued.

  2. We should seek to reduce the stigma associated with honest error, and encourage the submission of (self-) corrections, either as retractions if the work is rendered fundamentally unsound, or as amendments or notes to published articles in more minor cases. We should, as a community, applaud instances when this happens.

  3. When authors are resistant to attempts to correct the research record, institutions, publishers and editors need to be more assertive. If there is clear evidence of error, publishers – as the custodians of the research record – should recognise their responsibility to highlight, and to correct or remove, erroneous information that is in the public domain. If only a correction is required, this may take the form of a note attached to the online Version of Record (and included in the downloadable PDF), perhaps supported by an email to table-of-contents subscribers. As a minimum, the existence of a correction should be visible when accessing the Version of Record. If the problems are such that the work is rendered fundamentally unsound, a retraction (with a complete retraction notice) is appropriate.

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Speaking of UKRN, I’ve recently become a local node of SWERN, the Swedish reproducility network (a partner of UKRN).

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