A wave of retractions is shaking physics


Ziemelis also emphasized that “retractions are not always bad.” While some retractions occur because of research misconduct, “some retractions are of a much more innocent variety—the authors having made or being informed of an honest mistake, and upon reflection, feel they can no longer stand behind the claims of the paper,” he said while speaking on a panel. Indeed, physicist James Hamlin of the University of Florida, one of the presenters and an independent reviewer of Dias’s work, discussed how he had willingly retracted a 2009 experiment published in Physical Review Letters in 2021 after another researcher’s skepticism prompted him to reanalyze the data. 

What’s new is that “the ease of sharing data has enabled scrutiny to a larger extent than existed before,” says Jelena Stajic, an editor at Science. Journals and researchers need a “more standardized approach to how papers should be written and what needs to be shared in peer review and publication,” she says.

Focusing on the scandals “can be distracting” from systemic problems in reproducibility, says attendee Frank Marsiglio, a physicist at the University of Alberta in Canada. Researchers aren’t required to make unprocessed data readily available for outside scrutiny. When Marsiglio has revisited his own published work from a few years ago, sometimes he’s had trouble recalling how his former self drew those conclusions because he didn’t leave enough documentation. “How is somebody who didn’t write the paper going to be able to understand it?” he says.

Problems can arise when researchers get too excited about their own ideas. “What gets the most attention are cases of fraud or data manipulation, like someone copying and pasting data or editing it by hand,” says conference organizer Brian Skinner, a physicist at Ohio State University. “But I think the much more subtle issue is there are cool ideas that the community wants to confirm, and then we find ways to confirm those things.”

But some researchers may publish bad data for a more straightforward reason. The academic culture, popularly described as “publish or perish,” creates an intense pressure on researchers to deliver results. “It’s not a mystery or pathology why somebody who’s under pressure in their work might misstate things to their supervisor,” said Eugenie Reich, a lawyer who represents scientific whistleblowers, during her talk.

Notably, the conference lacked perspectives from researchers based outside the US, Canada, and Europe, and from researchers at companies. In recent years, academics have flocked to companies such as Google, Microsoft, and smaller startups to do quantum computing research, and they have published their work in Nature, Science, and the Physical Review journals. Frolov says he reached out to researchers from a couple of companies, but “that didn’t work out just because of timing,” he says. He aims to include researchers from that arena in future conversations.

After discussing the problems in the field, conference participants proposed feasible solutions for sharing data to improve reproducibility. They discussed how to persuade the community to view data sharing positively, rather than seeing the demand for it as a sign of distrust. They also brought up the practical challenges of asking graduate students to do even more work by preparing their data for outside scrutiny when it may already take them over five years to complete their degree. Meeting participants aim to publicly release a paper with their suggestions. “I think trust in science will ultimately go up if we establish a robust culture of shareable, reproducible, replicable results,” says Frolov. 

Sophia Chen is a science writer based in Columbus, Ohio. She has written for the society that publishes the Physical Review journals, and for the news section of Nature



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