segunda-feira, 25 de maio de 2015
IN December, Science published a paper claiming that people could change their minds about same-sex marriage after talking for just 20 minutes with a gay person. It seemed too good to be true — and it was.
On Wednesday, the journal distanced itself from the study, after its accuracy was disputed, and one of the authors could not back up the findings. News organizations, which had reported on the study, scrambled to correct the record.
Retractions can be good things, since even scientists often fail to acknowledge their mistakes, preferring instead to allow erroneous findings simply to wither away in the back alleys of unreproducible literature. But they don’t surprise those of us who are familiar with how science works; we’re surprised only that retractions aren’t even more frequent.
Remember that study showing vaccines were linked to autism? The time scientists claimed to have cloned human embryonic stem cells? Or that simple, easy way that was supposed to revolutionize the creation of such stem cells?
Those were all frauds published in the world’s top scientific journals — The Lancet, Science and Nature. The vaccine scare has been associated with a surge in cases of measles, some of them deadly.
Every day, on average, a scientific paper is retracted because of misconduct. Two percent of scientists admit to tinkering with their data in some kind of improper way. That number might appear small, but remember: Researchers publish some 2 million articles a year, often with taxpayer funding. In each of the last few years, the Office of Research Integrity, part of the United States Department of Health and Human Services, has sanctioned a dozen or so scientists for misconduct ranging from plagiarism to fabrication of results.
Not surprisingly, the problem appears to get worse as the stakes get higher. The now-discredited paper on gay marriage — by Michael J. LaCour, a graduate student at U.C.L.A., and Donald P. Green, a political scientist at Columbia, who requested a retraction after his co-author failed to produce the raw data — had all the elements: headline-grabbing research, in a top journal, on a hot topic.
But dishonest scholars aren’t the only guilty ones. Science fetishizes the published paper as the ultimate marker of individual productivity. And it doubles down on that bias with a concept called “impact factor” — how likely the studies in a given journal are to be referenced by subsequent articles. The more “downstream” citations, the theory goes, the more impactful the original article.