Thursday, 15 May 2008

retracting papers

An editorial in Nature 453:258 (15 May 2008) [paywall] tells a "cautionary tale about the weaknesses -- not the strengths -- of the scientific process." Whether we see strength or weakness, it seems, depends on how we tell the story. On one hand,
it seems to be a shining example of the scientific method in action. Two papers published by biochemist Homme Hellinga and his students at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina, claimed a breakthrough in rational enzyme design. Last year, another chemist found that Hellinga's enzymes didn't actually work, which led to the retraction of the two papers this February. Then, this March, a third group published research showing that rational enzyme design really is possible. All has ended happily, it seems, with the field marching forward in triumph.
As the editorial goes on to explain, missing from that account is the cost, both in dollars and reputation. The chemist unable to reproduce the results lost both time and money in his attempt to use rational enzyme design in his work. Hellinga's reputation (and previous results) have come under scrutiny, and Hellinga's student's reputation may have been irreparably damaged even though she was cleared of any wrongdoing.

In a game of trust, a retraction is only the first step to regaining status.

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