Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Handling a retraction well

Science is messy, and retractions of studies happens more often than we think. Indeed, there's a whole blog, Retraction Watch, devoted to such things! (One of its founders, Ivan Oransky, was my editor when I was writing at ScientificAmerican.com). Occasionally, retractions are a result of wholesale fraud, though usually the errors are more pedestrian: math mistakes, wrong assumptions, faulty methodology.

Recently, Oransky sent me a link to a Retraction Watch post about 2008 Davidson Fellow Nathan Georgette. This young man studied herd immunity. He had his first major study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology in 2007, and then later published another study on a similar topic in PLoS One in 2009. After taking a class on "Ordinary and Partial Differential Equations" at Harvard, Georgette reviewed his old study and realized that an assumption he made in building a mathematical model for the second study was flawed, and undermined the study's conclusions.

He wrote to the PLoS ONE editors, and asked them to retract the study, which they did. Oranksy points out that there are two interesting parts of this story. First, that the peer reviewers who reviewed the study didn't catch the problem, but second, the "rigor and transparency" with which Georgette handled the retraction. He found the error himself; he acted quickly to solve the problem. It bodes well for a future scientific career for this careful and honest researcher.

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