Speeding Motorboat

Retractions Can’t Travel at the Speed of Hype

From the Annals of Sad but True: “It is not only predatory journals that publish bullshit,” said Guillaume Cabanac. He was commenting of the news last year of hundreds of retractions from special issues in journals published by Springer Nature and Elsevier. This and other recent news suggests that scientific fraud is hardly negligible. But the more common problems are hype, spin, and simple errors that retractions cannot quickly erase.

Three Points for Raising the Bar

In a recent interview with the Good Science Project, David Allison identified three points of leverage for increasing the rigor and credibility of science.

Journal editors come first in his priorities. They are in the best position “to serve as gatekeepers of reasonable standards,” he says. They need training, resources, and accountability for promoting rigor in their journals.

Second, everyone who plays a part in sharing and interpreting research findings should be accountable for the truthfulness of what they write and share. People should compete for a reputation of truthfulness and the quality of their reporting. Spin and hype should have a cost that could be measurable by public assessments.

Finally, says Allison, there’s no substitute for a conscience:

“I have seen people smirk and literally or metaphorically wink while they knowingly bend the truth. And I have seen others stand with pride and unequivocally speak the unvarnished truth regardless of whether it was especially comfortable for or desired by them. How do we bring forward more scientists who identify as uncompromising, unequivocal, and unvarnished truth-tellers and not as ‘hypesters’ or spin doctors?”

Preventing Spin and Errors

In a new narrative review, María Núñez-Núñez and colleagues tell us that spin and unintentional errors are more common than outright scientific misconduct. They write:

“It is almost impossible to determine whether spin is the consequence of a lack of understanding of methodological principles, a parroting of common practices, a form of unconscious behavior, or an actual willingness to mislead the reader.”

They suggest that low familiarity with procedures to promote rigor in the planning, conduct, analysis, and reporting of research makes spin and errors almost inevitable. They found a dearth of practical guidance and training to address this matter. This requires a major correction through continuous training, they say.

A Culture That Rejects Spin and Hype

Retractions are a cumbersome, though necessary, tool for correcting errors in scientific communications. Preventing them is far more important because retractions can’t travel at the speed of hype.

So integrity in research and reporting of science must take center stage. Winks and nods at hype and spin should have no place in health and science.

Click here for the interview with Allison, here for the review by Núñez-Núñez, and  here for further perspective in the Washington Post.

Speeding Motorboat, painting by Benedetta Cappa / WikiArt

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October 2, 2022

2 Responses to “Retractions Can’t Travel at the Speed of Hype”

  1. October 02, 2022 at 8:27 am, Diana M Thomas said:

    You are rewarded by the system for hype. Press releases, tweets/retweets, championing your research gets you more attention, more invitations for presentations, which in turn increases your chances for funding. What reward do you get for being boring?

    • October 02, 2022 at 9:26 am, Ted said:

      To your excellent point, Diana, we need to change the incentives, especially in nutrition and obesity research.