Retraction Watch readers may recall the name Jennifer Byrne, whose work as a scientific sleuth we first wrote about four years ago, and have followed ever since. In a new paper in Scientometrics, Byrne, of New South Wales Health Pathology and the University of Sydney, working along with researchers including Cyril Labbé, known for his work detecting computer-generated papers, and Amanda Capes-Davis, who works on cell line identification, describe what happened when they approached publishers about errors in 31 papers. We asked Byrne several questions about the work.
The excellent work by these researchers is worthy of high praise and recognition. We’ll resist the temptation to rant about the fact this is amongst the good scientific practice not currently tracked by metrics.
Jennifer Byrne (JB): We study nucleotide sequence reagents, which are short pieces of DNA or RNA that researchers use to study genes. In this paper, we focussed on reagents for gene knockdown experiments, which aim to reduce gene function. These experiments rely on negative or so-called non-targeting controls that aren’t supposed to target any genes. In 2017, we first described gene knockdown papers where the intended non-targeting control corresponded to an active or targeting reagent. These were very surprising and serious errors. Furthermore, we found the same incorrect controls across different papers, and we notified the relevant journals about these errors and other concerns. This eventually allowed us to compare how different journals responded to 31 gene knockdown papers that each described one of two incorrect control reagents.