Friday, February 23, 2024

Retraction Watch: Keeping the Science Trustworthy by Tracking Retractions

Photo National Cancer Institute on Unsplash
"Whoever is careless with truth in small matters cannot be trusted in important affairs."
--Albert Einstein

How many times do you see or hear stories in the news referencing "new findings" regarding this health matter, that climate issue or some other "significant" breakthrough? New results from new studies seem to be an almost daily occurrence in our contemporary culture which has now made science more authoritative than the sacred texts that have been a guide for countless millions through the centuries. 

Today's new authorities are the scientific journals that publish findings or results from new research for the purpose of peer review. Getting published in journals gives research a patina of authority. News media then lauds these papers as reliable, as research that has been sifted and proven. As a result, scientific journals offer us a new canon of purportedly trustworthy information. Except when it isn't.

Sure, we're all aware that there have been occasional mistakes, or even hoaxes, that get published from time to time. Sometimes these even make the news. More often than not, however, new research findings are proclaimed loudly while retractions take place quietly, primarily because they are embarrassing.

This is where Retraction Watch (RW) comes in. RW tracks retractions  and offers the public an opportunity to see the scientific process at work. The RW team, an independent agency beholden to no one, shares the work they are doing so that we, who lack the tools, can see patterns and learn more about the reliability of  information we read about in the news.

Although retractions are nothing new, the problem of unreliable research is greater than ever. According to a podcast in The Guardian, a  record 10,000 research papers were retracted in 2023.

It was the rise misinformation in scientific journal that prompted Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus to start their Retraction Watch blog.  

It's understandable that publishers would be embarrassed to discover they goofed when they announced something unreliable or off-the-wall. On the other hand, when newsmaking research gets widely disseminated, or widely cited in other journal articles, someone needs to speak out and shine on a spotlight on those occasions when the king has no clothes on.

In the realm of investing, it's called due diligence. Unfortunately, most of us lack access to the myriad journals whose contents influence the influencers. We just hear it in the news.

For those interested, the RW team not only has a Retraction Watch blog, they also produce a daily Retraction Watch eNewsletter. If you're unfamiliar with the important work they've been sharing, I encourage you to check it out. 

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