19

Many years ago, when I was very new to the world of scientific paper publishing, I was a co-author to a paper that was subsequently retracted after an investigation of the findings. This was before I did my PhD (was a Master's student in a different field that I am currently in).

To explain, my role in the data collection and analysis was quite specific, and in the investigation it was deemed that my part of the work was verifiable and sound. In hindsight, I have long realised that I should have taken on a more active role in proof-reading the article as a whole, cross checking the findings and being more active in the article writing process. For that, I have always taken responsibility - so, even though I do not have anything to do with the lead author anymore - I am not blaming anyone.

Since then, I have been co-author and first author of over a dozen more papers - many are published without difficulty (we check, cross-check and check everything again nowadays).

But, the question remains, in terms of applying for postdocs, funding, grants and the like - how damaging is it to have been a co-author of a retracted paper?

  • 2
    Was it an entirely different field, a closely related field, or just a different sub field in the discipline you are still in? If it's 1 or 2, it seems unlikely people in your current field heard about it. Be honest when asked (in the way of your question), but don't promote the story. I assume you were the most junior (education level) author - what level were your co-authors (probably PhD student and up)? This should also factor in your favor. – gnometorule Oct 25 '15 at 2:59
  • Yes, it was an entirely different field, and yes, I was the most junior - the lead author was an Associate Professor, a co-author was a PostDoc and the other a PhD student. – user41783 Oct 25 '15 at 3:01
23

The effect of retractions on scientific careers has been studied, and the conclusion is essentially that retractions don't hurt scientists who are behaving carefully and ethically.

For your case, it sounds like you were clearly exonerated, and that your only fault was being a junior researcher who wasn't proactive about ensuring honesty on the part of your collaborators. Since you've since gone on to be more fully educated as a researcher and to establish a good publication record, I would not expect that this past retraction is likely to have any significant effect on your current prospects.

7

You do not mention the specifics and what exactly the investigation was about, but a reasonable person would expect the reason (pun intended) for the retraction to be of importance:

  • "It seems that our equipment was faulty; it turns out that the results of our 6-month long experiments on whether frumbling the meerps is more efficient than just frobbing them are not statistically significant after all".

    This happens all the time. Depending on the situation, the authors might repeat their study from scratch, they might publish a study on why their previous work was invalid and how to avoid the same issues - or they might decide that retracting the paper is a better solution, especially if they cannot provide a follow-up in a timely manner. I would expect this behavior to be expected and even applauded - provided that it does not happen too often in which case it would indicate lack of due diligence when researching.

  • "Immediately after our theoretical paper was published, Dr. Jones from the Coruscant University pointed out a contradiction with the well known and frequently repeated experiments performed by Dr. Hamil."

    While slightly more embarrassing, this also happens all the time. It could be a simple error in the arithmetic, or it could be that the author was not aware of all the implications of their results in all fields, especially if they have limited access to online libraries. Depending on the field and the actual cause an author might follow-up with work that expands on the original assumption ("Let's see what happens in a universe where two parallel lines actually do intersect at a non-infinite distance") - or they just retract the incorrect paper to avoid references of the "here why that paper is wrong" kind in the future.

  • "Noted anesthesiologist Dr. Palpatine was relieved of his position yesterday, after the revelation that the clinical studies on rectal constructs referenced in more than 200 of his papers never actually occurred."

    Now this is a bit different. It would certainly help if an investigation has cleared you by ascertaining both the validity of your own contribution and your lack of knowledge about (let alone participation in) any fraudulent activity. But keep in mind that some people would always be reluctant, (rightfully?) assuming that in many such cases the absence of proof of guilt is not equal to proof of innocence.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy