Ivan Oransky is a doctor and journalist and founder, along with Adam Marcus, of a blog called Retraction Watch. The site monitors scientific journals and investigates why articles were retracted. Brooke talks with Oransky, who says that since he and Marcus started the site in 2010 retractions have become more and more frequent.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The discussion of bogus journals you just heard put us in mind of the blog Retraction Watch, launched in 2010. Its name is self-explanatory. It tracks retractions, specifically from science journals, and especially life science journals. That's, in part, because its founders Adam Marcus and Ivan Oransky are both medical reporters in their day jobs. Oransky is also a doctor. We spoke with him soon after Retraction Watch was launched, but they have been hundreds of retractions since, and now they have a new retraction record holder. Ivan, welcome to On the Media.
DR. IVAN ORANSKY: Great to be here. Thanks for having me, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you’ve got a new retraction record holder. Congratulations!
DR. IVAN ORANSKY: We do, we do. Yoshitaka Fujii has 183 retractions. A hundred-eighty-three is a lot, especially when we consider that over the course of a year there are somewhere between 400 and 500 retractions. So he’s a big chunk of those.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: He didn’t retract them all in one year.
DR. IVAN ORANSKY: It's probably over the course of a little more than a year, but not in sort of a calendar year. These things tend to happen sort of all at once. In fact, that's really what happened with the last retraction record holder, Joachim Boldt. The final tally looks like it was 89 papers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm. Now, Boldt and Fujii are both anesthesiologists.
DR. IVAN ORANSKY: Mm-hmm.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What’s the deal there?
DR. IVAN ORANSKY: Well, you could say could that someone’s asleep at the switch.
Or you could actually say the opposite, which is that there’s someone named Steve Shafer, a journal editor at one of the major anesthesiology journals, and he’s really taken, you know, a really strong position on correcting the scientific literature. And so, whenever he sees something that might be a miss, he really pushes institutions, universities to do proper investigations.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So the fact that all of these retractions are showing up in anesthesiology isn't because anesthesiologists lie more. It's just that Shafer is so committed to transparency and correcting the record.
DR. IVAN ORANSKY: A lot of it is that. And, to be fair, Adam Marcus, my co-founder –
- is actually the managing editor of a newspaper called Anesthesiology News, so obviously he’s attuned to this, and Steve’s a good source of his. But I would also say that having more retractions in a particular area may, in fact, be a, a signal of quality and of transparency. We looked at the oldest English-language retraction once and found, I think it was 1756, involving Ben Franklin, of all people.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I’ve always been dubious of his paper about flatulence.
DR. IVAN ORANSKY: He’s – he has had quite a lot of colorful papers – we’ll, we’ll put it that way.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The last record holder, Boldt, had fewer than half of the current record holder, Fujii. Does that suggest that there is a dramatic increase in retractions?
DR. IVAN ORANSKY: The number has gone up about tenfold. And some of it is just awareness. It isn't just a very small community of people who had to go to the basement of the library, pull the journal out of the stacks. Well, everything’s online. And it means that there are more eyeballs looking at problematic figures, for example. There’s also plagiarism detection software that picks up whether you're duplicating your own work - not considered kosher - but also good old-fashioned plagiarism, where you’re actually taking someone else's work.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let me ask you about the peer review process, which has always been something we laypeople have wanted to believe in, scientists weighing in on each other's work and lending their expertise. You’ve cited several cases in which the author of a paper has given himself or herself star feedback.
DR. IVAN ORANSKY: This is a fascinating story. It’s probably one of my favorites. Hyung-In Moon is a Korean plant scientist. He had a whole bunch of papers he wanted to publish, and a lot of publishers will ask, especially in a very narrow area where there aren’t that many other experts, they will ask who else could review this paper. And so, Hyung-In Moon would say, “Oh, Dr. Jones. she’s an expert in this subject.” And the editor would do a quick check and say, Oh, Dr. Jones, of course, yes, she’s at the University of Blah-Dee-Blah, she's clearly published in this area.
Well, what Hyung-In Moon did was instead of putting Dr. Jones at, you know, harvard.edu [firstname.lastname@example.org], it was email@example.com.
And guess who controlled those email addresses, but Hyung-In Moon. So, long story short, all the reviews came back, shockingly, Brooke, as positive:
“Yes, you should publish this paper.” And it had very specific, “Oh, you should fix this and this paragraph is off” or “This table should be in blue” or whatever. But what nailed him was that they all came back within 24 hours.
And if you talk to journal editors, they don’t even get a, “Yes, I'd be happy to peer review that paper” in 24 hours, let alone a detailed review.
But I think it speaks to a larger issue in peer review. I mean, peer review, in some ways, has been, I think, oversold. We've seen so many things that aren’t right. I happen to think journalists can often do as good a job at peer review, after the fact.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Funniest retraction?
DR. IVAN ORANSKY: Some of the funny things we see are euphemisms for plagiarism. And we see things like “unattributed overlap.”
Well, that’s, that’s plagiarism, or one paper actually describes plagiarism very clearly and then said the authors apologize for this approach to writing this paper.
So Adam said, “Plagiarism is an approach to writing a paper the same way bank robbery is an approach to banking.”
We had things like “a significant originality issue.” [LAUGHS]
Yes, I mean, and if you bring this paper to therapy –
- I think maybe it will deal with those originality issues and be less angry at its father and maybe come out and talk about it.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ivan, thank you very much.
DR. IVAN ORANSKY: Thank you, Brooke. It’s been fun.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ivan Oransky is a medical journalist, a doctor and founder, along with Adam Marcus, of the blog, Retraction Watch.