The retraction crisis has morphed into a citation crisis.
- Even after scientific papers are retracted, hundreds of studies cite them as evidence.
- Roughly four retractions occur per 10,000 publications, mostly in medicine, life sciences, and chemistry journals.
- Journals should implement control measures that block the publication of papers that cite retracted papers.
Andrew Wakefield's 1998 study linking vaccines with autism was riddled with holes. All 12 children involved were handpicked, which is antithetical to clinical research. The now-deregistered physician falsified results. Wakefield used microscopic-level stains to make his case; a more reliable molecular method found no evidence of a link between vaccines and autism.
Add to this the fact that parents of study subjects, some with their own agendas (such as litigation), kept changing the timeline of their child's conditions. During all this time when Wakefield was raging against the vaccine, he filed for two patents on single measles shots. It was a money play from day one.
Twenty-three years later, the vaccine-autism myth remains in circulation despite decades of contrary evidence. Six years after the study was published, 10 of the 13 authors of their paper retracted their findings. It took The Lancet a few more years; in 2010 the publication finally retracted the paper. Journalist Brian Deer documented Wakefield's scam for years. Still, the lie persists.Science's replication crisis is well-known. But the research community is suffering from another serious problem, one ill-fated for the social media age: the retraction crisis.
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As science journalist (and former marine biologist) Fanni Daniella Szakal recently pointed out, retracted papers are still being cited and used as gospel even when—sometimes it seems especially when—data are intentionally fabricated. Currently, roughly four retractions occur per 10,000 publications, with the highest percentages being in medicine, life sciences, and chemistry journals.
That overall number might not seem high yet those retracted studies have an outsized influence. Wakefield claiming the MMR vaccine causes autism as a ruse to patent his own vaccine is the most infamous example, but there are others.
- A 2005 paper touting omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids as having anti-inflammatory effects was retracted in 2008 after it was discovered that one author intentionally falsified data. After 2008, however, 96 percent of papers that cited the study never mentioned that it had been retracted.
- German anesthesiologist Joachim Boldt has a whopping 103 retractions credited to his name. Considered the greatest fraud in medicine since Wakefield, his studies, including influential work on the role of hydroxyethyl starch, continues to be cited today.
- Two COVID-19 studies published in reputable journals were retracted after their findings were deemed to be suspect. The researchers relied on a combination of big data and AI to replace randomized controlled clinical trials, leading to false results. Still, the retracted papers were cited in other prestigious journals and have been, in part, seized upon by anti-vaxxers that point to a nefarious medical industry trying to confuse us with conflicting evidence.
Gastroenterologist Dr Andrew Wakefield arrives with his wife Carmel flanked by supporters on July 16, 2007 in London, England.
As Szakal notes, a solid grasp of science matters considering research drives policy and healthcare decisions. We can't possibly expect every paper to get it right, but unfortunately, we also have to factor in biased researchers pushing forward their agendas. While the publication of such research is troublesome, Szakal takes particular issue with the authors and publications that continue to cite them after they've been retracted.
More than just a critique, however, Szakal suggests a path forward.
"In each and every publication, author guidelines should include that the author is needed to check all citations for possible retractions. Today numerous citation software are available to do this with ease; such as Zotero, scite.ai, and RedacTek alert users for any retracted papers in the reference list. As well as more care from authors, preventing post-retraction citations is a responsibility of publishers too. Along with double-checking the reference list of papers to be published, they should also make sure that retraction notices appear on all platforms where the study is available."
The past year has proven how dangerous scientific misinformation (and, even more disturbingly, disinformation) is to public health measures. The frantic urgency of social media platforms and the speed with which we consume headlines without reading articles makes teaching good science even more daunting. At the very least, we need the gatekeepers to take more responsibility for their publication process. Being the first to break bad science is way more socially damaging than being the tenth to publish science worth repeating.
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His most recent book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."
A new study makes a compelling case for the origin of unexplained masses of underground rock causing changes to the Earth's magnetic field.
They're called "large low-shear-velocity provinces" (LLSVPs), and they're large anomalous globs of, well, some kind of rock deep inside the Earth. There's one under Africa and the other is beneath the Pacific Ocean. Together, they're apparently producing the South Atlantic Anomaly, a massive region of lower magnetic intensity sufficient to weaken the planet's corresponding magnetic field. This provides less protection from cosmic rays for our orbiting spacecraft, and some wonder whether its presence signals a flipping of the planets magnetic poles. It's believed the anomaly is nothing new, reappearing now and again for at least 11 million years and likely much longer.
A theory from researchers at Arizona State University (ASU) presented this month at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference may explain what the LLSVPs actually are: They're what's left of the protoplanet Theia that crashed into the young Earth about 4.5 billion years ago, shearing off the debris that eventually became our Moon.
Credit: 3000ad/Adobe Stock
According to a widely held hypothesis, Theia was an at-least Mars-sized object that obliquely collided with Earth. It's a good thing it just glanced off us, too, since a direct hit would have obliterated our planet entirely. As it was, it's theorized, two big chunks were ejected from the collision, forming two moons that eventually coalesced into the one we see today.
The authors of the new research, led by ASU's Qian Yuan, explain in a summary of their findings: "Such a model is well-aligned with some key physical aspects of Earth-Moon system, including anomalous high angular momentum of Earth-Moon system, small iron core of the Moon and its high mass ratio compared to the Earth."
But if Theia was real, where did it go? The authors write, "The Giant Impact hypothesis is one of the most examined models for the formation of the Moon, but direct evidence indicating the existence of the impactor Theia remains elusive." It's reasonable that some material from both bodies was destroy. How much of Theia was captured has remained an open question.
Scientists have conclusively determined that the LLSVPs exist, though their origin and composition is unresolved. The ASU researchers say that while they could be thermal in origin, seismological examination reveals that they have distinct margins separating them from surrounding rock and are much denser chemically, suggesting that they're not of a piece with the rest of the mantle.
The researchers' modeling of Theia's likely composition supports the idea that its mantle was several percent denser than Earth's, and iron-rich, which would mean that after the bodies collided, the Theia mantle material could "sink to Earth's lowermost mantle and accumulate into thermochemical piles that may cause seismically observed LLSVPs."
The theory proposed in the new research, which is being evaluated for publication in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, has been proposed before. However, the ASU researchers have presented what may be the best supporting evidence for it yet. Yuan says his research supports the LLSVP-Theia connection in four ways:
- The LLSVPs' mass may be equivalent to the size of Theia's mantle, answering the question of where it went after impact.
- At a minimum of 250 million years old, the LLSVPs predate the Moon.
- The hypothesized makeup of Theia's mantle matches what is believed to be the composition of the LLSVPs.
- Simulations show how Theia's mantle could end up where the LLSVPs currently are.
Scientists use high resolution microscopy and computer simulations to create first ever video of DNA movements.
- UK scientists create first ever video of DNA performing dance-like movements.
- The visualization was accomplished using high resolution microscopy and computer simulations.
- The advanced level of detail in the technology may lead to new therapies.
DNA makes dance-like movements inside cells, show new videos from researchers in UK's Universities of York, Sheffield and Leeds.
They developed footage using the highest resolution images of a single molecule of DNA ever taken, demonstrating how DNA inside cells can change shape.
Previous imaging of DNA, also known as Deoxyribonucleic acid, used microscopes that produced only static images. The videos now produced by the researchers employed advanced atomic force microscopy and supercomputer simulations to achieve the visualization feat.
The images exhibit a tremendous amount of detail, showing the position of each atom in the double helix structure of DNA as the molecules twist and turn.
The reason for the DNA writhing dance? The molecule needs to find a way to fit quite a lot inside a cell. Each human cell is comprised of about 2 meters of DNA strands. The whole body, with roughly 50 trillion cells, would have about 100 trillion meters of DNA. That's per human.
To make the fit possible, DNA resorts to twisting, turning and coiling.
In particular, the researchers examined DNA minicircles, where molecules are joined on both ends, forming a loop. The minicircles may be useful as indicators of health and aging, found previous research from Stanford. This structure allowed the scientists to twist the molecules, making the DNA "dance."
In comparison to images of untwisted DNA, where little movement was observed, molecules with added twists became very dynamic and took on unusual shapes. These dance-like moves help the molecules to find binding partners for the DNA, concluded researchers. Trying a greater amount of shapes leads to a stronger likelihood of attracting another molecule.
The study's co-author Dr. Agnes Noy, lecturer in the Department of Physics at the University of York, explained just how precise their analysis has become: "The computer simulations and microscopy images agree so well that they boost the resolution of experiments and enable us to track how each atom of the double helix of DNA dances."
"Seeing is believing, but with something as small as DNA, seeing the helical structure of the entire DNA molecule was extremely challenging," said the study's first author Dr. Alice Pyne, a material scientist from the University of Sheffield, adding" The videos we have developed enable us to observe DNA twisting in a level of detail that has never been seen before."
The scientists believe that the new level of detail with which they can now study DNA can lead to new therapies.
Check out the study published in Nature Communications.
A study of europium crystals shows the planet was mostly flat during its middle ages.
Scientists discovered that Earth was likely quite flat during it's so-called middle ages. Not flat as in conspiracies that don't believe our planet is round, but lacking in mountains. It was also a period of little growth of life. In fact, this stretch of time from 1.8 billion to 0.8 billion years ago is also known as the "Boring Billion" and referred to as "the dullest period in Earth's history."
Nothing dull about what the researchers found, however, by studying the chemical element europium, embedded in zircon crystals. Their analysis revealed that during the Boring Billion, the absence of tectonic activity that's crucial to mountain creation also slowed the nutrient cycling vital for the evolution of life.
The research involved studying zircon crystals from around the globe, carried out by teams from Peking University, the University of Toronto, Rutgers University, and the University of Science and Technology of China. They based their work on previous findings that showed a connection between the amount of europium located inside a zircon crystal and the thickness of the Earth's crust when the crystal was formed. A larger amount of the europium meant more pressure pushing down on it from above. This indicated that the crust was thicker.
The scientists, led by Ming Tang from Peking University, found that during the so-called middle or "Boring" period, Earth's crust was thinner than it is now. There were no mountains and the surface was all oceans and flat land masses. This indicated to the researchers that tectonic activity likely stopped or at least slowed majorly for about 1 billion years. Tectonic activity is known to push mountains up, leading also to erosion that enriches oceanic environments and fosters evolving life. If such a cycle was disrupted, evolution would have slowed to a crawl. This is what previous studies have suggested for that time period.
Credit: Alchemist-hp, CC0 public domain
Why did the tectonic activity stop? And why for such a long time? The researchers do not know yet, but think the answers may lie in the creation of the ancient Nuna-Rodina supercontinent, which could have affected the thermal structure of the planet's mantle.
Check out the new paper on the history of mountain formation (or "orogenic") processes published in Science.
Meet a spectacular new blue—the first inorganic new blue in some time.
The color you're looking at in the unretouched photo above is a stunning new blue called "YInMn Blue." It's the first new inorganic blue pigment developed in hundreds of years. "YInMn Blue" is a contraction of Yttrium, Indium, and Manganese, and the pigment was invented by a team of chemists led by Mas Subramanian at Oregon State University (OSU).
The color was invented in 2009, but it took until last spring for the EPA to approve it for general use — the agency refers to it as "Blue 10G513." Before that, in 2016, the Shepherd Color Company had licensed it for exterior use, and knockoffs of the color popped up here and there in Etsy offerings. It even inspired a new Crayola color called "Bluetiful." Appropriate.
So, um the color of the sky is...?
Credit: Constant Loubier/Unsplash
YInMn Blue is the latest character in an odd story: humanity's relationship with the color blue.
For a long time, humans apparently took no note of blue, which is weird. Though blue isn't especially common in vegetation and stone, there's no other color that so envelops us — in the sky above and on the face of the oceans that surround us. (BTW, the late George Carlin once lamented a paucity of blue foods.)
There are no ancient European year-old cave paintings with blue pigments, though it does appear in some African cave art. There's no mention of it in the Bible. Though there are plenty of references in Homer's Odyssey to white and black, and a few to red and yellow, there's no blue. He refers to the color of the sea as "wine-dark."
Some historians hypothesize that early humans might have been color-blind, capable only of seeing black, white, red, and eventually yellow and green. Perhaps they just weren't very interested in the idea of color altogether.
Maybe, though, a more likely explanation is that lacking a concept and a word for blue, ancient people lacked a frame of reference for understanding what they were seeing. Radiolab did a fascinating episode about this possibility.
A BBC documentary found that people from a Namibian tribe with no separate words for green and blue couldn't differentiate green from blue squares, though there's some controversy about the experiment. What is true, though, is that Eskimos see more types of snow because they have 50 words for it. (The word "Eskimo" groups together the people of the Inuit and Yupik families.) We see just a few.
Credit: Geert Pieters/Unsplash
While Homer, et al., were stumbling around clueless, it seems that the first folks to get blue were the ancient Egyptians, who were entranced by the semiprecious Afghan stone lapis lazuli about 6,000 years ago. They gave the color a name—ḫsbḏ-ỉrjt—and used the stone liberally in jewelry and headdresses.
The Egyptians even attempted to make paint from the mineral, but failed. In 2,200 B.C. they finally succeeded at producing a light-blue paint, cuprorivaite or "Egyptian blue," from heated limestone, sand, and azurite or malachite. Egypt's precious blue pigments eventually became valued by royalty in Persia, Mesoamerica, and Rome.
The earliest successful lapis lazuli paint—and ultimately Europe's first great blue—appeared in 6th century Buddhist paintings from Bamiyan, Afghanistan. Imported into Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries, ultramarine—from ultramarinus, or "beyond the sea"—was used only in expensive commissioned artwork until a French chemist developed a cheaper, synthetic version in 1826. True ultramarine was both so coveted and pricey that, according to the Metropolitan Museum, Vermeer impoverished his family to purchase it, and there's a story that one of Michelangelo's paintings, "The Entombment," was left unfinished because he couldn't afford the ultramarine it required. At the other end of the cost spectrum was the affordable blue dye indigo, made from the plant Indigofera tinctoria, and imported to Europe in the 16th-century.
Over time, more blues appeared. In 1706, German dye-maker Johann Jacob Diesbach came up with Berliner Blau, or Prussian blue, accidentally when potash he was using to make red pigment was contaminated with animal blood that paradoxically turned it blue. 1802 saw the invention of cobalt blue, based on the 8th- and 9th-century blue pigments used in Chinese porcelain, by French chemist Louis Jacques Thénard. Cerulean blue—from caerulum, meaning "heave" or "sky"—was the last major blue introduced before YInMn Blue. It was invented by Albrecht Höpfner in 1789.
Back to the new blue
The discovery of YInMn Blue occurred when chemistry grad student Andrew Smith was heating manganese oxide to approximately 1200 °C (~2000 °F) to investigate its electronic properties. To his surprise, what emerged from the heat was a brilliant blue compound. Recalls Subramanian: "If I hadn't come from an industry research background — DuPont has a division that developed pigments, and obviously, they are used in paint and many other things — I would not have known this was highly unusual, a discovery with strong commercial potential."
Subramanian knew, he told NPR in 2016, "People have been looking for a good, durable blue color for a couple of centuries." OSU art students soon began experimenting with the new color, incorporating it in watercolors and printing. In 2012, Subramanian's team received a patent for YInMn Blue.
Bonus: Previous blue pigments are prone to fading and are often toxic. These are problems that don't afflict YInMn Blue. "The fact that this pigment was synthesized at such high temperatures signaled that this new compound was extremely stable, a property long sought in a blue pigment," says Subramanian in the study documenting YInMn Blue.
Subramanian and his colleagues have been developing colors ever since, including new bright oranges, new purples, and turquoises and greens. Currently, they're on the hunt for a chromatic Holy Grail: a stable, heat-reflective, and brilliant, red. It's a challenge. While red is among the oldest colors, Subramanian calls the shade he seeks "the most elusive color to synthesize."