I Retract that Retraction


For starters, have a listen to these two segments from one of my favorite shows: NPR’s On The Media, for September 2nd…

Scientific Retractions on the Rise                                    

Retraction Watch

These couple of segments caught my attention both as an academic, who, for the sake of his own future sustainability takes more than a casual interest in the world of publishing, and as an environmental historian whose work both incorporates modern scientific discovery and understanding and seeks to understand the world through the eyes of scientific practitioners of other ages.  Some of my basic questions get asked in the piece itself.  Is the increase in retractions a mark of the ever-accelerating pace of science, that conclusions are being drawn that call other conclusions into question with increasing rapidity?  Or is this a mark of decline in academic integrity and vigor?  Or perhaps a failure of the peer review process.  Are things winding up in print that should never have been in print–and if so is this not the equivalent of grade inflation (with all its attendant gripes) for the individuals on the other side of the desk?  Have we lowered our standards for what is publishable to meet the increasing demand and unshakable expectation that a successful and marketable academic will have publications?  We see and hear laments about the nature of 21st century students and talk of their expectations and apparent sense of entitlement.  Are academics any better, or is this the same kind of attitude being brought to bear on a different set of challenges?

Or have I got this all wrong–me and my cynical default to pessimism.  Are we really seeing a trend towards greater scrutiny of our conclusions?  Though, if that be the case, how do we explain the observation that retracted papers get cited as much or more than the retractions.  We (or someone) apparently values the mistake over its correction.  Have some of the high profile academic honesty scandals, and perhaps the kind of political fish bowl professors swim around in (note my last post…or the recent uproar around Bill Cronon), made us hyper-sensitive to errors or inconsistencies?  Are we hell bent on catching them ourselves before someone at the Heritage Foundation finds them for us?  Or am I completely out of my mind for seeking to extrapolate from trends in science to concerns for the humanities?

Questions about honesty, integrity, and responsibility in research are ever present.  I think discussion of them fits in nicely with some of what we’ve said here about politics, about process, and about technology and sources.  Whether or not you think that the trends being observed in the sciences are applicable, they do demonstrate that the nature of writing and publishing, just like teaching and research, is ever-changing.  And as the people who have taken it upon themselves to analyze change over time, it seems to me that it is incumbant upon us to consider these changes, discuss them, and adapt to them–whether that be reconsideration of our approaches to citation, as is debated in the piece, or other elements of our conventions and practices.

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About Rob Gee

I am an international environmental historian who focuses on marine and fisheries policy in the Atlantic Ocean. I currently teach history and environmental studies at Unity College and the University of Maine. I have interests in the connections between geological and quaternary histories of watersheds and coastal ecosystems and their modern development of settlement patterns and economies, the dissemination of scientific knowledge through communities of scholars, resource users, and government officials, and a rapidly growing interest in systems of food production and distribution. I'm also a fascinated observer of evolving relationships between technology, knowledge, and education, and our sometimes hapless efforts to knit them meaningfully together!
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