Ivan Oransky is a medical journalist, global editorial director of MedPage Today and co-founder of Retraction Watch, a site that tracks and reports on retractions in research journals. In light of the release of Wiley's Best Practice Guidelines on Publishing Ethics, we were eager to hear more from Ivan on the uptick in retractions, publishing ethics.and more.
Q. Can you tell us about your background and your current position?
A. I’m a doctor-turned journalist. I’ve been reporting and writing since high school, and was executive editor of the Harvard Crimson in college, but went to medical school – as many in my family do – and decided to choose journalism after my medical internship. Since leaving medicine 15 years ago, I’ve held positions at The Scientist, Scientific American, and Reuters. I co-founded Retraction Watch in 2010, and in 2013 I became vice president and executive director of MedPage Today. I also teach medical journalism at New York University’s Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program, and serve as vice president of the Association of Health Care Journalists.
Q. How and why did you decide to start Retraction Watch?
A. Adam Marcus – he’s the other co-founder of the site – and I had both reported on retractions over the years. Adam, for example, broke the story of Scott Reuben, an anesthesiology researcher who eventually went to prison after it was discovered that he had made up the patients in more than 20 published studies. We frequently found that there were much bigger stories behind many retractions notices, often involving fraud and misconduct, but always providing a glimpse into how good science is at correcting itself. So we decided to tell those stories, and a blog seemed like a perfect medium for it.
Q. What do you see as Retraction Watch’s biggest success?
A. We’ve been amazed by the response to Retraction Watch. We average more than 100,000 unique visitors and 600,000 pageviews per month. Not a week seems to go by without a reference to our coverage in major media outlets around the world. The MacArthur Foundation just awarded us $400,000 to expand our efforts and build a retraction database. But if I had to choose a single example of our success, it’s been the community of scientists and others interested in research integrity that has coalesced around our work. It’s that community that has supported us, given us constructive criticism, and offered us tips that turn into illuminating stories.
Q. What is your take on why retractions have steadily increased?
A. This is sort of the $64,000 question. On the one hand, there’s clear evidence that online publishing has meant more eyeballs on papers, including the “eyeballs” of plagiarism detection software, and readers are picking up problems that may have gone undetected in the past. You might think of that as a screening effect. But there is also some evidence that the amount of fraud is on the rise, because of increased pressures on researchers to obtain funding.
Q. Do you feel that publishing ethics have gotten stronger or weaker in recent years? Why?
A. There is some evidence that the spotlight we and others have been shining on scientific publishing ethics has had an effect. Conversations about scientific integrity are happening all over the world, not just in scientific publications but in the mass media, funding agencies, and elsewhere. Publishers are taking notice, too: The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, which publishes the Journal of Biological Chemistry, hired a manager of publication ethics to handle critiques in a more robust way, and to bolster some of their retraction notices. So we’re optimistic about the future.
Q. How has the emergence of social media impacted retractions and ethics in publishing?
A. In addition to making it easier to examine papers, the Internet makes it easier for readers to publish their critiques. PubPeer is a great example of this. The site has already led to a number of corrections and retractions. PubMed Commons has done the same. And of course Twitter and Facebook can give critics a bigger platform than they had in the past.
Q. What one change would you most like to see in how ethical issues (including retractions) are handled?
A. Too many retraction notices are still opaque, thanks in large part to lawyers, as Nature recently admitted. We’d like to see this improve further. Clear retraction notices can reduce the stigma of retraction. There’s even an incentive for scientists to do so: Researchers who retract papers for honest error may see a bump in their citations, or at the very least not see a decrease, as you’d expect given the stigma. And while it’s not an ethical issue per se, funding agencies and universities need to stop relying so heavily on the published paper for decisions about grants, tenure, and promotion. That warps the scientific record and makes scientists less likely to correct it.
Q. Retraction Watch has a whole line of merchandise (including T-shirts for dogs!) – which is your personal favorite?
A. Oh, that’s a tough one. Everyone needs a Retraction Watchdog T-shirt, don’t you think? One day, however, we’ll develop a Retraction Watch.