Wednesday, May 25, 2016

For comms pros: The case for publicizing scientific retractions

In my careers as journalist and then communications pro, one of the best pieces of advice I've ever shared with executives and public officials is, "When you make an error, whatever it may be, make it public. Apologize. And then it will be behind you." The reverse also is true: Avoid or hide the error, and fail to address it in a forthright manner, and it's very likely to come back to haunt you again and again.

Normally, we think of this advice as pertaining to politicians confronted with some long-ago transgression. But I'm wondering why science communicators don't apply it more often when research is retracted from a scientific journal?

I can hear you shuddering (or maybe that's your marketing team) and thinking: Why publicize retractions? Shouldn't we focus on kudos, awards, and positive forward steps? Sure, you should. But when a forward step takes you two steps back in reputation, this open approach can build your credibility--the very thing you are trying to protect.

In this 2011 interview, Retraction Watch editors Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus advocate for transparency in your publicity decisions around retracted research. Asked what journals can do better to educate authors, reviewers and editors, they said:
This is a pet peeve of ours. Many retraction notices are opaque, buried, or both. We’ve called for journals to publicize retractions better: Any journal that press releases studies should press release retractions. Science does that, and Nature at least press releases any retraction of a paper that it had originally press released. Then there’s PNAS, which won’t press release any retractions. We’re not sure how that squares with scientific transparency. It could also do better at publicizing retraction processes and policies. Another suggestion: Journals ought to put retraction notices (and even corrections) outside their subscription firewalls. If not, if you don’t subscribe, you can’t read the notices. Just another step toward transparency.
PNAS--the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences--began issuing corrections and retractions in their press releases in 2015.

Transparency isn't the only goal here. As with politicians, publicizing the error is both responsible and removes--rather than emphasizes--the sting of the error. After all, if you are able to non-anxiously make your mistakes public, we may trust you more, not less. There's less room for shame if you are doing the disclosing.

But journals shouldn't bear the burden alone. The institutions that are home to the retracted research also could display the same transparency by making public their errors. Here's a recent example from the University of Maryland, widely criticized for issuing a press release for a non-peer reviewed, industry-sponsored study about the product of the sponsoring industry. Aside from wishing as much thought had gone into the study and press release as in this fine response, the level of communication of error here is appropriate--and restorative to reputation. Here, there's redemption in company. The more of you doing this, the less odd it will seem.

There's another bonus here, dear to the hearts of science communicators: You'll be doing a better job making clear how science actually works. We bemoan all the time the tendency of the media to breathlessly report new research findings--but in failing to publicize retractions, we toss away the antidote to that. In Failure is moving science forward, science writer Christie Aschwanden explains:
Years ago, someone asked John Maddox how much of what his prestigious science journal Nature printed was wrong. “All of it,” the renowned editor quickly replied. “That’s what science is about — new knowledge constantly arriving to correct the old.” Maddox wasn’t implying that science was bunk; he was saying that it’s only as good as the current available evidence, and as more data pours in, it’s inevitable that our answers change.
What are some tactics comms pros can use if you decide to change your policy and publish your institution's research errors?
  1. Coordinate with the publishing journal, if relevant, and link to its public information on the retraction.
  2. Make it routine, as good journals do, to publish short notices about retractions. In this way, you are signaling a) that this happens all over, and b) this particular retraction is not necessarily special. Make sure your researchers understand this approach and work to get their support.
  3. Share context on how the scientific method and reproducibility work, so the retractions are viewed with that information.
  4. Keep the information public and outside any firewalls your institution maintains. Otherwise, you lose your transparency credits.
  5. If the retracted research got a press release, its retraction should have one, too--with linking to the original release for clarity. Make sure it is issued to reporters who received the first release. If you publish a press or public information policy, mention this practice in it.
And if you think you don't have the bandwidth for this, at least one college has been issuing releases when a researcher is invited to review a journal article in pre-publication. If you are that desperate for the publicity, let me suggest that publishing your retractions is both better public service and more nutritional content, word for word, than that option.

(Creative Commons licensed cartoon by Bud Petal)

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