Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Watching the retractions

Retraction Watch is a website devoted to information about, well, retractions: when a scientific or scholarly journal withdraws an article which it had previously published, for one or another reason (fraud being the most damning). The site can interest bioethics workers for obvious reasons: not just that it is a watchdog for scientific integrity, but also that it is your one-stop-shop for accusations of potentially unethical scientific behavior.

Recently, the tables were turned: a bioethics article was retracted. In fact, it was an article that this blog mentioned back in 2015. Chattopadhyay et al.'s "Imperialism in bioethics: how policies of profit negate engagement of developing world bioethicists and undermine global bioethics" looked at online journal access, and concluded that a number of bioethics journals were inaccessible to middle- and low-income researchers via prominent open-access initiatives (WHO's Hinari, Pub Med Central). These broad claims were factually incorrect. You could call this the predictable consequence of the 'empirical turn' in bioethics: if you emulate empirical methods, and generate empirical data to support ethical arguments, you are open to retraction when the facts aren't right. So be it.

The discussion and comments on the case in Retraction Watch are worth taking a look at. For my part, I sympathize with the general claim that those in developing countries face serious challenges entering the bioethical 'conversation of mankind.' The roots of the problem likely run deeper than open-access: if you don't have good English, or access to computers, or computers with reliable internet, or there is no hint of 'bioethics' in your educational institutions, or a burning interest in bioethics makes you an economical trainwreck and so on. To make these sort of claims stick, more empirical research is needed. As it should be.

For my part, I have decided not to retract my blog piece on the original article, but instead direct the readers (all five of them) to this post and hence back to Retraction Watch. Lesson learned: you can't assume that peer reviewers have thoroughly checked the methodology of an article, and when the conclusions of an article cohere strongly with your own experiences, look out.

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