A paper from 2012 associated darker skin with aggression and sexuality in humans. Another from this year claimed to show that women with endometriosis are more attractive. A third, published last December, lamented doctors who posted casual pictures of themselves online – including some wearing bikinis – as unprofessional.
All three articles were recently withdrawn after outraged readers took to social media. In the past three months, at least four other articles have been viewed for both their content and lack of scientific accuracy, and then either flagged or withdrawn by their science publishers.
It plays like a preview for “The Purge: Academia”. Just as politicians and entertainers are confronted with years of tweets that don’t quite match the desired image, magazines have been confronted with ugly papers from their archives – some old and long ignored – that worry their readers. These papers were profoundly flawed and it is good to remove them from the literature. However, the reactive nature of the movements raises questions. Typical publishers’ narratives suggest that issues like this are peer reviewed before a manuscript is accepted. instead of being recognized later, in the midst of a public backlash.
For some of these withdrawn articles, the question is not whether they are offensive, but how they even managed to get published. Take, for example, the one who argued that blacks and Hispanics lack the cultural basis for success in the American economy. or the comment in a leading chemical journal that was hostile to efforts to increase diversity. Another argument against positive action, published in the American Heart Association Journalwas removed due to its “many misunderstandings and incorrect quotations” as well as “inaccuracies, incorrect statements and selective misinterpretations of source materials”.
That hasn’t stopped conservatives from deciphering the “censorship” of abandonment mobs on social media and rejecting recent moves as an exercise in signaling virtues. Indeed, the fact that magazines waited almost a decade after publication to issue some of these withdrawals – and then moved very quickly – suggests some truth in conservative criticism. If a 2012 paper didn’t meet the standards of a scholarship magazine, what’s different now?
The critics are right: magazines do have a double standard and it is politically. They move briskly to pull out unworthy, policy-tainted papers while ignoring hundreds or possibly thousands of credible allegations of fraud or grave error. Just ask Elisabeth Bik, who about five years ago carefully documented around 800 scientific papers and reported indications of image manipulation, often without success. In many cases, the editors of these articles are the same as those who access them when social media-backed petitions get into their inbox.
Of course, nobody (at least we know about) argues that #AllPapersMatter and not all bad articles are created equal. For example, an article advocating racist pseudoscience would almost certainly do more harm than an article overrating the benefits of a Superman flex in the bathroom mirror before an interview, or an unquoted and completely memorable article with a duplicate or two Numbers . Papers claiming the benefits of snake oil should also be prioritized for withdrawal. Journals should act quickly to conduct these more dangerous studies, while a little less willingness is understandable for the others – to some extent, as long as they do something at some point.
But magazines often pretend to be monuments to their own righteousness and not a repository for valid scientific information. The lancet It took a dozen years to withdraw the sham study linking autism to vaccinations in early childhood. science has not yet published an article in 2011 that was debunked almost immediately, claiming to have found a bacterium that lives on arsenic. And the infamous “Study 329” in which SmithKline Beecham (now GlaxoSmithKline) downplayed the potential harms of its mood drug Paxil remains on the side of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, almost 20 years later.
To be fair, small publishers may not have the authority to do a thorough review of their back catalog. Withdrawals are not always, or even generally, simple administrative matters. For example, clear plagiarism claims still need to be checked with software and the human eye to compare text and ensure that overlapping sections are in fact theft. Allegations of manipulated images require the study of numbers that even experts may find difficult to decipher. Questions about bad statistics and tortured methods, which can blur the line between acceptable practice and bad science, often require the decision of independent experts. Oh, and authors of articles on the chopping block don’t always agree that their work should be retired. You can pull things out for months or years, or in some cases even sue magazines in response.