Science Says: What happens when researchers make mistakes

Everyone makes mistakes, but when scientists do, the remedy goes far beyond saying you're sorry. Two fresh examples show how some journals and universities react when the need arises to set the record straight.

On Wednesday, the New England Journal of Medicine retracted and republished a landmark study on the Mediterranean diet, and issued an unprecedented five other corrections after an obscure report last year scrutinized thousands of articles in eight journals over more than a decade and questioned some methods.

Separately, Cornell University said it was investigating "a wide range of allegations of research misconduct" raised against a prominent food marketing faculty member.

The New England Journal's review did not alter any conclusions and should raise public trust in science, not erode it, said its top editor, Dr. Jeffrey Drazen.

"When we discover a problem we work very hard to get to the bottom of it," he said. "There's no fraud here as far as we can tell. But we needed to correct the record."


"Retractions are definitely on the rise" and there are 10 times as many corrections as retractions, said Dr. Ivan Oransky, a health journalism professor at New York University and co-founder of Retraction Watch, a website that tracks errors in science journals.

But they're still pretty rare. About 1,350 papers were retracted in 2016 out of 2 million published—less than a tenth of a percent, but up from 36 out of 1 million in 2000, he said.

"The main reason they're up is that people are looking," and the internet makes it easier with tools to detect plagiarism and manipulated images, Oransky said.

Studies are often the main source of evidence that guides doctors' decision-making and patient care, and that's why journals are so meticulous when that evidence is called into question.


Here's what happened at the New England Journal.

Many experiments randomly assign people to different groups to compare one treatment to another. The groups should be similar on height, weight, age and other factors, and statistical tests can suggest whether the distribution of these traits is implausible, compromising any results.

Dr. John Carlisle of Torbay Hospital in England used one such test to scrutinize thousands of studies from 2000 through 2015 including 934 in the New England Journal and flagged 11 as suspicious.

The journal contacted each author and "within a week we resolved 10 of the 11 cases," Drazen said. In five, Carlisle was wrong. Five others were terminology errors by the authors—Wednesday's corrections.

The last was the diet study on 7,500 people in Spain, which established that eating lots of fish, vegetables, olive oil and nuts could slash heart risks by 30 percent—front-page news everywhere.

Researchers dug through records and discovered that one study site had not followed procedures—if one person in a household joined the study, others such as a spouse also were allowed in. That makes the group assignments not truly random. When results were re-analyzed without those folks, the bottom line remained the same, and the journal is now publishing both versions.

"I've been impressed" with the response, Carlisle said.

His analysis also covered 518 studies in the Journal of the American Medical Association, but JAMA has not done a systematic review, said its top editor, Dr. Howard Bauchner. Instead, the journal asks authors to respond if concerns are raised about specific articles and publishes those as they arise.


Last week, JAMA published an "expression of concern " about six articles by Brian Wansink, head of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, "to alert the scientific community to the ongoing concerns about the validity of these publications" and ask Cornell to do an independent evaluation.

Wansink has had seven papers retracted (one twice), 15 corrections and now this expression of concern, Oransky said.

Wansink said in an email that he has been working with co-authors in France, Israel and the Netherlands "to locate the original data sets and reanalyze and the data in the papers," and that materials will be independently analyzed by Cornell and reported back to the journal.

Cornell's statement says a committee of faculty members has been investigating allegations against Wansink since last fall and working with federal agencies that sponsor research.

"The assertions being made by outside researchers and the retraction of multiple papers from academic journals by the Food and Brand Lab are concerning. Our silence on this matter to date should in no way be construed as a disregard for the seriousness of the claims being raised nor as an abdication of our obligation to explore them."

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Jun 13, 2018
This comment has been removed by a moderator.

Jun 14, 2018
Like with the entire AGW theory? They form a religion.

Jun 14, 2018
Misconduct is widespread, all being paid for by the taxpayers

Are you seriously suggesting that the government is the sole source of misconduct?

But misconduct imples wrongdoing. From what I understand in the article there were very few examples of actual misconduct found. Mostly just mistakes.

Jun 14, 2018
Misconduct is widespread

Like with the entire AGW theory? They form a religion.

In what kind of fantasy world is less than a tenth of a percent "widespread"?
(And even of those not all were misconduct but mostly just honest mistakes)

As opposed to your posts: which are 100% misconduct. You should be persecuting yourselves with a vengeance if you were at all honest about...well..anything in your lives.

Jun 14, 2018
Frankly & Ernestly, I am impressed that there is such an ongoing effort at robust, systematic self-correction within the Medical and other Science communities.

The mirror opposite of the mendacious agitprop of the denier shills. You boys getting treatment for your tobacco cough yet?

Jun 14, 2018
This comment has been removed by a moderator.

Jun 14, 2018
Uhhmm, ZB, if I read your comment correctly? You are again complaining that you are abso-fucking-lutley forbidden from building your own cold fusion whizbang and sending it in with an application to the US Patent Office?

My godlessness man! Why do you expose yourself on the internet to the dangers of official suppression of your genius?

You are in obvious danger from being hunted down by the Men-In-Black and forced into projectile elimination.

Oh, wait, that's the Men-In-White to gift you your daily enema.

Hey look, tapioca pudding tonight! Yummy, you are one lucky patient. Yes you are! You're such a good boy. Now here, let the nice nurse wipe the drool off your chin.

Jun 15, 2018
rrwillsj, I think you make too many assumptions about ZB. They may not like tapioca at all. ;)

Jun 15, 2018
Frankly & Ernestly, I am HEE..HAWW...HEE...HAWW

The mirror opposite of the mendacious agitprop of the denier shills. You boys getting treatment for your tobacco cough yet?

The Chicken Little Jackass brays yet again.


Jun 16, 2018
This comment has been removed by a moderator.

Jun 16, 2018
This comment has been removed by a moderator.

Jun 16, 2018
Now ZB you are being too harsh on the GOP. After all corruption defines them. Sordid collusion between Republican venality, unscrupulous corporations and subverted regulators dates back over a century and a half.

Your outrage at their criminal behavior is understandable.

However, it is Mueller's duty to bring them to justice!

Jun 16, 2018
Mueller's duty is to see if there is collusion with Russia. If you're hoping that he will uncover rampant corruption is hoping too much. If/When he finds such corruption and it's not part of the Russia investigation then it will not be part of his testimony..

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