In the Science retraction, a learning moment for researchers and the public

How can researchers be their own guardian? contemplativechristian, CC BY-SA

The recent case of the retraction of an article on the ability of openly gay canvassers to shift voters’ views toward support for same-sex marriage serves in many ways as a cautionary tale both for researchers and the public.

It is not all that unusual to revise and even retract studies that have already been published. It can be seen as part of the review process. Nonetheless, this current retraction by editors of Science provokes many questions, many of which have been raised in the last two weeks.

However, here are two that have not received quite as much attention: first, what ethical dimensions are embedded in published studies, the review process and the drive to publish; and second, what are the potentially harmful effects of these retractions on public attitudes toward science and the presentation of new knowledge?

As a researcher in philosophy, I come from a discipline in which we pay careful attention to knowledge claims. This focus is not unique to philosophy, but this skill gives those of us trained in the field ways of thinking about knowledge and the nature of evidence, more explicitly.

Misrepresentation in study

There is a great deal that is still unknown about the back story of the retracted article. What we do know is that the researchers purported to study the effects that openly gay canvassers had on conservative voters as they discussed with them attitudes toward same-sex marriage.

The very least that can be said is that the data at the heart of the study were misrepresented.

The lead author, Donald Green, a professor at Columbia University, agreed to the retraction, while Michael LaCour, a graduate student at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), apologized for lying about certain aspects of his study (like the funding sources). Nonetheless, he still stands by the conclusions presented in the retracted paper.

After the publication of the article in December 2014, questions were raised by two other researchers, who attempted to replicate the methods of the study in their own project and found that their results diverged widely from the original study.

Ethics of research

The discovery and presentation of knowledge entail high standards of honesty and integrity both in the research and its dissemination. Much in this enterprise depends on the integrity of the researchers. In this process, researchers make choices all the time. These choices often entail ethical challenges.

In this story, these ethical challenges enter in at least two ways:

First is at the level of professional ethics and codes of intellectual honesty. Every profession promulgates these codes in order to maintain academic rigor and best practices.

And second are considerations of personal ethics. A great deal of the monitoring of professional and ethical standards is done, first and foremost, by the researcher himself. Especially so in an academic enterprise.

Methods of research are set out early on, along with the oversight and review processes. Students are warned about the dishonesty of plagiarism and deliberate misrepresentations. They are cautioned against the grave harm any dishonesty could cause to the profession and to the person who engages in them.

Where you get published is more important

So, what are some of the reasons that could contribute to such unethical actions?

For this, it is worth examining the landscape within which these studies are initiated and undertaken.

Graduate students and faculty members are under a great deal of pressure to execute groundbreaking research and to publish in top-tier journals that are then cited in the work of other researchers.

Researchers are under tremendous pressure to publish in top journals. ehpien, CC BY-NC-ND

Not only are these citations counted, they are often weighted according to the ranking of the journals themselves. This kind of data becomes important when faculty and graduate students apply for grants from external agencies and for purposes of hiring, tenure and promotion (for example, the yearly rankings given in the Journal Citation Reports).

And this leads to a cult of celebrity publishing. While one can theorize and say that the drive for status and prestige should not overshadow the value of the work itself, the competitive nature of research publication makes this difficult to put aside.

Moreover, it is tempting for readers to gauge the significance of research solely on the rankings of a journal.

The fact is that all too often, faculty and students, under pressure, succumb to the prevailing notions about where their work should be published. And a culture that places more value on the messenger than on the knowledge being published comes to be accepted.

Value of scrutiny

How can the integrity of the intellectual enterprise be overseen and maintained in this increasingly complex and competitive world of research?

Science is an inductive and a largely self-correcting process. It relies on the honesty of the researchers themselves as well as a sound scrutiny of peers in their fields.

Serious harm results when these misdeeds are not discovered.

In the case at hand, a high-profile debate unfolded in the media, which then led to the perfect storm and a subsequent retraction by a leading journal in the field.

It is true that even with public scrutiny and due diligence, people can be led into accepting practices such as the use of brain games to bolster cognitive functioning, even if they have been shown to have narrow and limited effects. But, there is value in this scrutiny.

This lies in the fact that members of the profession can attempt to correct a flawed study and bring it to public notice, especially if fraud has been committed.

In this way, the integrity of the professional process can be maintained. It also sends out a critical message to the one committing fraud that he/she will face the consequences of his/ her actions (dismissal, public opprobrium, removal from funding opportunities, etc).

Someone making a genuine error can also learn from the honest mistakes.

Do ‘guardians need a guard’?

Serious harm can also result from these misdeeds being discovered.

As valuable and necessary as corrections are in scientific research, an unfortunate fallout is the ammunition they may provide to the members of the public who denigrate science and devalue its role in helping form cogent public policies, such as on the value of vaccinations for children or on the importance of redressing the effects of climate change.

The fact is that currents of anti-intellectualism run deep in the history of this country. And often, when an event undermines the interest and abilities of our fellow citizens to evaluate claims and counterclaims in thoughtful and rigorous ways, they might be unable to manage its complexities.

We educators on all levels face a daunting challenge: to help our students cultivate an independence of mind and critical thinking skills for an informed analysis of claims made in public discourse.

What, then, are the responsibilities of researchers and the public in the advancement of knowledge in these complex times?

In the Republic, Socrates/Plato noted that it was absurd to think that the guardians needed a guard.

We are far indeed from the Republic, but we can still heed the advice that Socrates gives near the end of that book when he reminds his friends that we have within us the capacity for wisdom and “that wisdom and control should, if possible come from within; failing that, it must be imposed from without, in order that, being under the same guidance, we may all be friends and equals.”

As researchers, we need to pay heed to all these components: we need honest researchers who monitor their own behavior; we need to have scrutiny by other researchers in the field; and we need an engaged public that values knowledge for its own sake as well as for the ways it enriches our personal and communal lives.

Researchers do extraordinarily valuable work. Our work is to be prepared to evaluate, critique and reject it when there are good reasons to do so.

We need to be our own guardians.