My phone rang after I boarded a plane at the Amsterdam airport, on my way to visit family in the Philippines. It was my former Ph.D. adviser calling to tell me a preprint had just been posted that identified flaws in a paper we’d published in Nature looking at how forestry practices affect streamflow. My stomach dropped as he told me the authors of the critique were demanding a retraction. We couldn’t talk long—the plane soon took off. I spent the 16-hour flight processing a mix of emotions—disbelief, embarrassment, frustration—and wondering what this would mean for my career.
Mistakes happen to honest people; they even happen to people who try to be conscientious. A forced retraction can be a gut punch. It can feel like a career-ending event, but it doesn’t have to be. If it is approached correctly, it can inform and improve our practice. Don’t get us wrong; researchers should proofread and double, triple check their work to minimise the chances of making a painful public mistake. We find a good practice is, after the proofreading, to get a trusted colleague to look over our work and give us honest feedback. Institutions’ professional development and resource material should warn researchers of the damage a mistake can cause. At the same time, there is a place for material that encourages researchers to see missteps as learning opportunities.
The fallout was swift and intense. I received a flood of emails and messages. Some were from supportive colleagues, but many were harshly critical of our work. “You should not have used that metric even if it was used by earlier studies,” one wrote. “Those earlier studies were also wrong!” As the first author of the paper and the person who had done all of the data analysis, I felt deeply embarrassed by the criticism
We wrote a draft response, correcting the apparent errors in the data set and defending our methods. Nature sent our response out for peer review, along with the critique. We decided against publishing our response, however, after receiving feedback from peer reviewers. Our mistakes were consequential, and it was clear that the only ethical thing to do was to retract the paper.
Researchers should be encouraged, not punished, for … retracting flawed work.
JAIVIME EVARISTO, UTRECHT UNIVERSITY