Let’s just take some recent examples. This is where I learned about the Czech scientist who broke into a lab that was trying to replicate his (falsified) findings, in an attempt to gum up the works. And about a principal investigator’s wife who apparently got her own PhD by borrowing liberally from a student in the lab.
Or what about this? Remember those lurid stories about a drug called krokodil that were all over a little while back? It supposedly turned up in St Louis–by way of Russia. It’s way cheaper than heroin, but it has the major drawback of making its users’ skin turn green and fall off. Gross, right? But it turns out there are some serious problems with the scientific article that those recent news stories were based on. Where did I find out about this? Retraction Watch! (In case you’re interested, here’s a Slate piece by Justin Peters that takes on the stories about krokodil in the US.)
All that stuff is pretty fascinating in a geeky-version-of-Judge-Judy-for-scientists way. But Retraction Watch is also where I have learned about problems that affect my own work. For example, I’ve done a lot of research on ways to get DNA out of old samples. One of the papers I looked at while doing this research turns out to be based on fabricated data. Good to know!
Finally, I think the website is important because it provides a space to look at the big picture. Are the growing number of retractions in the literature a good thing or a bad thing? Are we (journals and scientists) handling retractions in the right way? Could we be doing better?
This site is run by two guys–Adam Marcus, the managing editor of Anesthesiology News and a freelance writer, and Ivan Oransky, vice president and global editorial director of MedPage Today. I’m sure these are two busy people, and I can’t even imagine how much time it takes to run this site. Plus, it sounds like the authors involved in the retraction stories threaten them on a fairly regular basis, which must be stressful. Anyway, it’s a great public service to the science community. A big thanks to them both!