Fixing Mistakes – Putting Action Behind My Big, Fat Mouth

Yesterday, I wrote a post about scientific fact checkers and how scientists interact with them, using Dr. David Sabatini as an example. I did NOT expect the attention it garnered, but I do hope that Dr. Sabatini (if he read it) took it in the spirit in which it was intended. Like I noted in the original post, I’ve been following and admiring his work on mTOR for years. Thank in part to his efforts, mTOR inhibitors are in the clinic and are helping cancer patients fight their disease.

As a scientist, I find that very intellectually stimulating and gratifying. As a cancer survivor, I’m eternally grateful. Should my disease recur, torkinibs may be a part of my treatment plan, or perhaps third or fourth generation inhibitors. There are more options now thanks to the efforts of laboratory and clinical investigators around the world, and that gives us all so much hope!

At the end of the previous post, I noted that I, too, had been flagged on PubPeer for an error in a 2012 publication. What happened? In figure 4C, we inadvertently duplicated photomicrographs in the top panels:

Yup – the sharp-eyed PubPeer reviewer caught what the graduate student, collaborators, myself, my co-investigator, peer reviewers, and the journal production editors missed. The “Parental” and “Vector” images are identical. Not good. Now, this is a relatively minor error, but if left alone, it could lead to the perception that our laboratory group is sloppy and not as rigorous as we should be. In science, like many other fields, reputation is everything.

How does this happen? It’s a product of long hours poring over data, trying to select the best representations of experimental results, building figures and revising them…and revising them…and switching out panels and photos until the student or postdoc putting together the figures eyes are crossing. Many of them are sleep deprived, overloaded, and after a while, really numb to looking at the same data over and over again. Is that an excuse? No, it’s a reason, which is why study PIs, collaborators, reviewers, and the journal have a responsibility to double, triple, and quadruple check our papers before they’re sent out into the cyberverse for other scientists to read.

I take my part of the responsibility for this one. At the time, I was a Research Assistant Professor. While not on tenure-track, I was quite senior in the laboratory and had a duty to co-mentor and support the graduate students and fellows in the lab. My name was on the paper. I missed this and dropped the ball. That’s on me.

Fortunately, thanks to PubPeer, I have the opportunity to fix it!

After sorting through electronic files (thank GOODNESS our former lab members were organized), I was able to locate original images and generate correct (distinct) panels for Parental and Vector controls:

Submitted to PLoS One as a correction

I contacted PLoS One today to request a correction. They may not re-issue the paper due to time and cost constraints, but I do hope they’ll add the corrected figure panels to an addendum. I’ll report back on this once I hear from them.

Bottom line: We ALL make mistakes from time to time. Yet, our culture discourages us from owning those mistakes, as if they’re a mark of shame or weakness. Certainly admitting mistakes has become uncomfortable and taboo. That is something that needs to change. Owning mistakes and fixing them are signs of integrity. When I’m entering into new collaborations, I pay attention to how my potential co-investigators and their team handle mistakes. Admission and ownership of mistakes and efforts to correct them are signs that new collaborators are trustworthy, rigorous, and have integrity, essential qualities in modern science. Very few scientific studies are performed by a single laboratory/person in that laboratory. Shared labor is the norm, so trust is key.

I WANT to be known as trustworthy, as someone with integrity whose work can be trusted and reproduced. As someone who recently withdrew a submitted manuscript when we (to our horror) found out that many of the data weren’t reproducible, I’ve become more vigilant. And I’m a better scientist for it. Science is better for vigilance. And that’s a good thing.

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