A retraction refers to a public statement made about an earlier statement that cancels, withdraws, reverses or refutes the original statement or desists from publishing the original statement.

Generally, a paper is retracted when there is human error in the form of classification or data collection errors, problematic statistical analysis and information that cannot be verified; it may also happen when there is intentional academic misconduct such as manipulation or fabrication of data.

In the context of the scientific community, being right is very often the single most important thing for any scientist. The notion of making a mistake and letting it slip past one's eyes is dreaded by many researchers and academicians. Thus, when scientists are forced to retract their published paper, disgrace and embarrassment are most likely to ensue.

A unique case of retraction that led to good

Shame did not follow when Nathan Georgette, a young scientist at Harvard University, retracted his paper.

Nathan Georgette is an accomplished researcher. At the young age of 16, he had already published his first scientific paper on immunity. Two years following his first publication, he produced a second paper which was published in the prestigious PLOS ONE journal. However, when Georgette was undertaking his undergraduate degree at Harvard University, he realised that his work contained an inaccurate assumption which negatively impacted his work, particularly the one published in PLOS ONE.

Instead of quietly ignoring the matter, Georgette took the honourable path of requesting the editors of PLOS ONE to retract his paper. The exceptional response from Georgette had received widespread attention from the scientific community. His courage and rigour in correcting his mistake was well-received by the public, which consequently enhanced his career prospects.

Retraction of a paper is not necessarily bad

Generally, retraction of a scientific paper is likely to tarnish the reputation of the scientist. This is especially true in the currently very competitive world of “publish or perish”. However, it is critical for scientists to understand the impact of such a seemingly “destructive” move towards one’s career.

Science is built upon the collective knowledge of the scientific community, with layers of intertwining information and breakthrough discoveries supporting each other. It only takes a single flawed theory, (or assumption in Georgette's case), to cause the whole structure to collapse.

The false link between vaccine and autism is the best case study. The paper published by the infamous British scientist Andrew Wakefield has done tremendous damage to the scientific community. Vaccination rates dropped significantly as Wakefield’s paper made headlines globally.

Even though The Lancet has officially retracted the paper, its impact still lingers today. In January 2017, The New York Times reported that prominent anti-vaccine activist, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., has been asked by U.S. President-elect Donald J. Trump to head the new government commission to look into vaccine safety and scientific integrity.

Contrary to The Lancet's retraction of Wakefield's paper, renowned diabetes scientist, Douglas Melton, was highly praised by his peers when he voluntarily retracted a paper once hailed as a breakthrough in diabetic treatment. Melton’s discovery of an endogenous hormone that stimulated secretion of insulin in mice could not be replicated by other researchers, casting significant doubts over the authenticity of his finding.

Melton himself also published a follow-up study that challenged his initial findings. Finally, after three years of rigorous investigations, Melton refuted his own discovery and retracted the paper. The retraction not only saved the scientific community years of effort from going down the wrong direction of research, but also showcased how important honesty and integrity were in protecting a scientist’s reputation.

Melton wrote, "[the retraction showed] how scientists can work together when they disagree, and come together to move the field forward". MIMS

Read more:
Most Americans believe in vaccines; What is Trump going to do about it?
Study claims many scientific publications from recent years are “unnecessary, misleading and conflicted”
More negativity in science is needed
China’s FDA says 80% of data from clinical trials in the country are ‘fabricated’

Sources:
1. Oransky I, Marcus A. This young scientist retracted a paper. And it didn’t hurt his career [Internet]. STAT. 2016 [cited 2017 Jan 13]. Available from: https://www.statnews.com/2016/12/22/retraction-paper-nathan-georgette/
2. Sathyanarayana Rao T, Andrade C. The MMR vaccine and autism: Sensation, refutation, retraction, and fraud. Indian J Psychiatry. 2011;53(2):95.
3. Shear M, Haberman M, Belluck P. Anti-Vaccine Activist Says Trump Wants Him to Lead Panel on Immunization Safety [Internet]. The New York Times. 2017 [cited 2017 Jan 13]. Available from: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/10/us/politics/anti-vaccine-activist-trump-immunizations.html?_r=0
4. Garde D. Once-promising diabetes “breakthrough” comes unglued with a major retraction [Internet]. STAT. 2016 [cited 2017 Jan 13]. Available from: https://www.statnews.com/2016/12/27/diabetes-breakthrough-retracted/