How likely are academics to confess to errors in research?

Last modified: May 29, 2017

People make mistakes. We all do. But what if the mistake you made seriously undermines the conclusion of one of your research papers? And what if that paper was already published in a high impact journal?
In January 2016 Times Higher Education (THE) conducted an anonymous online survey in order to explore how likely academics are to confess to serious errors. Of the 220 respondents, 5% admitted that they would not come forward. A further 9% said that they would take no action unless someone else had pointed out their mistake to them. Relying entirely on self-reporting, these THE-results might be a rather conservative estimate. Should we be worried?

This THE-article focuses on the ’emotional, reputational and practical barriers to correcting mistakes.’ It suggests that the stigma attached to the retraction of a paper, together with the lack of a reward for honesty, makes it difficult for scientists to come clean about past errors. Moreover, the article captures the personal stories of two scientists who are or have been struggling with the retraction of their work. In total it gives a good insight into the complexity and dilemmas that go with retraction.

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