Teaching students about retractions

July 22, 2011 issue of Science cover
July 22, 2011 issue of Science

I’ve been kicking around some thoughts lately about why and how to teach students about retractions and rebuttals of scientific papers.  I recently wrote a bit about researcher use (or lack thereof) of rebuttals, and NPR made me aware of this recent high profile retraction from Science of a prominent paper about the genetic component of longevity.  So the concepts have been floating around in my head for a bit, and as I brainstorm, it seems to come down to Who, What, Where, When, Why and How.

Who?  Either a faculty member or a librarian can teach students about retractions.  It might be easier for a faculty member to partner with a librarian instead of developing the class material from scratch.

What?  We teach students about peer review, about how the goal of the process is to make sure published articles contain sound methods and reasonable data analysis.  Perhaps we need to go the extra step and talk about the limitations of peer review.  The NPR story showcases a great example:

In an email, Science editor-in-chief Bruce Alberts points out that research papers are built on a wide variety of new, highly complex technologies. Finding a team of reviewers with all of the needed expertise is tricky. And how many reviewers are enough to be sure nothing slips through? The answer, Alberts says, is not always clear.

Criticisms of peer review are nothing new, and students should learn what peer review is good at, and what it’s bad at.

We can also talk about the less common cases of scientific fraud.

Importantly, we can also teach students strategies to determine if a paper they want to use has been retracted.  While some online systems make this clear, not all of them do.  Citation searching is one strategy that can help, and teaching students to do a complete literature review (not just taking the three first references you find) can be useful.

Where and When?  Students in introductory classes are just starting to figure things out.  What is a journal article?  Why can’t I use Wikipedia?  While it is tempting to introduce everything everything related to finding and using the scientific literature at once, I’m not sure it’s practical.  Perhaps peer review is introduced to students as sophomores, but we wait to discuss retractions (and science ethics) until junior or senior seminars?  Perhaps it is a good fit for a session in which citation tracking is discussed?

Why? Why take important class time to discuss these issues?  One of the main goals of undergraduate science education is to prepare students to think critically.  Neglecting this topic may give students the impression that peer review is sacrosanct, and discourage them from critically analyzing the methods and data analysis sections of papers they read.  In addition, students are learning to be scientists. Learning about the highs (publication) and lows (retraction) of scientific communication is an important part of their education.

How?  Class discussions about peer review and science ethics can lead naturally to a discussion of retractions and rebuttals.  Hands-on sessions focused on teaching students to search for primary research articles can include exercises focused on citation searching and include examples of retracted papers.  Controversial topics in science may provide term paper and project opportunities that allow students to research scientific disagreements.  Easy to read commentary on sites like Retraction Watch or news articles can provide students with the background needed to understand the issues.

What other strategies can we use to teach students about these concepts?

Update (7/27/2011): This excellent blog post over on Retraction Watch might be a useful reference or reading for students.  It discusses a recent article in the journal Science and Engineering Ethics that discusses why journal editors retract – or don’t retract – articles.


One thought on “Teaching students about retractions

  1. Ok, got your point. And it makes sense. But before doing: prepare well.
    Further I guess not everyone will like your teaching about the peer review system. You should be aware of this.

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