Being a Great Scientist – How to (and NOT to) Handle Mistakes

In the age of the Internet, trolls and trollish behaviors have multiplied exponentially. Science is not immune. Many of us were late coming to social media, but more and more laboratories, institutions, programs, scientific organizations, conferences, professional organizations, and journals are engaging in Twitter and other outlets. Overall, this is a great thing! It is so satisfying to peruse science Twitter and catch up on all of the latest findings, hot new studies and publications, and enjoy a community of peers that extends beyond the halls of individual institutions.

But OF COURSE there are trolls and trollish folks in the Twitterverse. Smart people aren’t immune to this. It’s human nature. Not our best quality as a species, but it’s there nonetheless and it extends to people across professions, educational backgrounds, political and religious ideologies…you get the idea.

No matter where you go, there’s always one (or more) assholes. That’s a fact of life, like death, taxes, and motherfucking reviewer number two.

A positive side-effect of the Internet Age is the rise of transparency and fact-checking. This is important in every field (side-eyes the news media), but especially in science. Scientists pore over the literature and build upon previous studies to move the field forward. If a study contains errors, inconsistencies, or (in the worst cases), fabricated or altered data, it undermines the integrity of the field and the scientific endeavor. That’s why sites like PubPeer work to spot inconsistencies in published scientific literature. Now, no one likes to have their mistakes posted in big bold font on the Internet, but setting aside ego and emotion, it’s actually a GOOD thing! It helps us be vigilant about our work and the work of our colleagues who contribute data to shared publications, it allows the authors of the studies in question to go back and examine the data and correct mistakes in collaboration with the journal in question. It makes science more rigorous. All good things.

UNLESS…

Link to Meme

The scientist in question decides to get his or her TROLL on!

When a mistake is pointed out on PubPeer, there are basically two ways to handle it. #1 – Thank the fact checkers for finding the error, dig through the data and fix the mistake, contact the journal in which the mistake was published and (if possible) update the data presented or add a note with the updated data as an addendum, and promise to be more rigorous in the future. This is the best way to handle it. It preserves your integrity as a scientist (and the integrity of the scientific process), it shows your commitment to ethics and responsible conduct of research, and it shows that you value your reputation and quality of your work enough to protect it. Basically, it makes you look good, honest, trustworthy – all qualities you want to have as a human being and a scientist.

Link to Tweet

Then, there’s the second way to handle it…#2 – Insult the PubPeer fact checker (petty, failed scientists), block “steaming turd,” (grudgingly) contact the journal to see what you should do. See this post from For Better Science for the run down. The first two items are childish, unnecessary, and, well, trollish. Mistakes happen, even to the great and mighty Dr. David Sabatini (whose work I actually follow and admire, since I’m working on mTOR signaling in breast cancer in my own lab). He’s a leader in the field, and he could have used this as an opportunity to set a great example for his peers and colleagues by handling this situation, which happens to plenty of scientists, with grace, dignity, and integrity. Someone with his reputation and in his position has a great deal of influence and sets the tone for scientists at all levels.

This is not a great tone. This is not a good look. I’m 95% certain that, had he not gone on Twitter and got his troll on, no one would be talking about the errors that have been found in multiple papers. He could have quietly fixed them and moved on.

Instead, EVERYONE is talking about this. This isn’t the kind of publicity you want as a scientist. Here are some Twitter replies:

There are even more replies to the first post, some showing sympathy and support – while gently pointing out the importance of the work PubPeer is doing – others (who tend to get blocked) calling out Dr. Sabatini on the insults borne of ego. It didn’t have to go down like this. It’s sad and unfortunate that it did. Hopefully, it will serve as an example of what NOT to do when confronted with evidence of error in published work.

For a GREAT example of what to do when confronted with evidence of mistakes in a publication, check out how Nobel Laureate Dr. Frances Arnold retracted a published study when she and her colleagues found the results were not reproducible missing data from a lab notebook. This is a fantastic example of integrity, honesty, and ethics.

*Note – you might be wondering if I’m just armchair quarterbacking, safe in the knowledge that I’m not the one being called out by PubPeer. I am not. In fact, when I joined PubPeer and did a search on my name, I found a post about an error in a 2012 PLoS One paper for which I was a co-author – we accidentally duplicated a photomicrograph. These things happen, but I’m GLAD the PubPeer fact checker spotted it so we have the opportunity to correct this. We are working on it NOW!

(And yes, I did thank the fact checker, because my mama raised me to have manners)

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