Does One Bad Paper Spoil the Bunch?

Far too often, I read about yet another highly publicized scientific paper that has been retracted due to research misconduct. Most recently, it was a paper published in Nature that proposed a simple, too-good-to-be-true method for producing stem cells, referred to as stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP). The paper was retracted because, to put it simply, it appears that some of the figures were manipulated. Perhaps even worse is that it sounds almost exactly like a number of other stories I’ve heard.

My mouse hovers over the “Share” button for a few seconds but I always decide against it. I can’t bring myself to show that ugly side of science to my friends and family. I’m sure they’ve seen it already because this story is all over, but I just don’t want to be the one to show it to them. Even writing this right now is extremely difficult for me. Still, sweeping these issues under the rug does nothing to quiet the question in my mind: Does the misconduct of a few feed public mistrust in science as a whole?

It’s unfortunate but it does seem like every retraction and every report of egregious misconduct adds to public mistrust in scientific research. Of course, on the flip side, there are times where retractions of this nature have reinforced science in the face of skepticism. The case of Andrew Wakefield’s falsified work on the connection between autism and the MMR vaccine (or lack there of) immediately comes to mind. Climate change and evolution are two areas where a notable portion of the public takes issue with the validity of scientific support. Surprisingly, the Pew Research Center found that disbelief in evolution and climate change does not necessarily translate to a negative attitude toward science and scientists.

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Table from Pew Research Center’s “Public Praises Science; Scientists Fault Public, Media”

I should note that only a relatively small percentage of peer-reviewed papers are retracted – about 0.02%, according to Van Noorden (2011). Of that, an even smaller percentage can be attributed to misconduct. Many retractions are the result of honest mistakes; perhaps a more mild offense than deliberate misconduct but certainly damaging in its own right. In fact, it’s possible that both kinds of retractions produce the same result when it comes to scientific credibility, either due to lack of distinction between the two in the media or because, ultimately, both produce the same ends (miscommunication of information) through different means. It also seems that cases of misconduct tend to get more media attention simply because it makes a better story than an honest mistake.

To end on a more positive note, the vast majority scientists seek to counter this mistrust with public outreach in many forms. In fact, I’m doing it right now. Blogging has become a recent favorite of scientists as an avenue for communicating their work. Interestingly, it was a blog by stem cell researcher Paul Knoepfler where many shared their attempts to recreate STAP cells that significantly contributed to the ultimate retraction of the paper mentioned earlier. This week, Casey shared an ECOLOG posting with the lab that advertised a new website, Publiscize, that helps scientists communicate their research to laypersons. Not to mention things like open houses, science cafes, crowdfunding, work with K-12 schools and many other ways of showing off the beautiful side of science. All I can hope is that this kind of positive outreach is enough to replace the trust that is lost with interest.

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