EDIT 14/03/12: As pointed out in the comments, the accuracy of the PubMed’s database needs to be considered when analyzing retractions. Thanks L. Wynholds!

Unless you’ve completely been avoiding all social media platforms this week, you’ve likely come across the #StopKony/#Kony2012 campaign. In short, a group called Invisible Children created the video above that was meant to make Joseph Kony infamous, and encourage governments and people to act against him. By raising awareness, you can make a difference, the filmmakers argue.

The video went up, and almost immediately went viral. It was uploaded on March 4th, 2012. By March 5th, it had over 25 million views. As of March 11th i.e. one week, it has over 70 million views.

What I find most interesting though, is that almost immediately after the video went up, people started digging. And suddenly, this campaign was being questioned and criticized. Sites such as Visible Children found  questionable information about the campaign, and it wasn’t long before the media started asking questions; Jezebel, NY Daily News, CTV, The Huffington Post (which featured comments from Ugandans) and The Atlantic all penned articles ranging from slamming Invisible Children (Jezebel) to presenting both sides (CTV). People were critical, they dug up information, and they presented facts to back up their criticisms.

Scientists are familiar with this process: It’s peer review.

There have been several high profile cases where scientists have either fabricated or cherry-picked data. Most, if not all, epidemiologists are familiar with the controversy surrounding Dr Andrew Wakefield. He ran a study in 1998 that showed a link between the MMR vaccine and autism in children (1). However, it was later found out to be fraudulent, and was retracted (2). There’s also the story of Dr Anil Potti, who claimed to be a Rhodes Scholar. Turns out he made that up/misrepresented himself, and now has a slew of papers that have either been retracted or are under investigation.

But how common is this?

The number of retractions each year per 100 000 publications (via R-bloggers). Click the pic for more information.

Turns out it happens more often than you think. And not only does it happen a lot, it has also been going up over time, to the point where Retraction Watch is a blog dedicated to it. Part of this is attributable to the fact that more articles being published should result in more retractions (3), and with a wider audience any “issues” are more likely to be discovered (4).

Edit: Note that the denominator here is the number of papers indexed in PubMed. This should be considered when drawing conclusions; how are papers reported to PubMed when they are retracted, i.e. is this voluntary or automatic, how good is PubMed’s data back to 1977, and how broad a field does PubMed cover.

So what does this all mean?

With more and more information being available at our fingertips, and the absolute number of articles being published rocketing skyward, combined with a 24 hour news cycle that focuses on sound bites and headlines rather than delving into issues deeply, we, as scientists, need to be prepared and ready to critically analyze and evaluate information presented to us. The same way #StopKony was investigated and tested, we should evaluate information the same way, doing our due diligence and ensuring that the study has been performed to a high level.

In another news, I feel really sorry for this company: www.kony.com


1. Wakefield, A., Murch, S., Anthony, A., Linnell, J., Casson, D., Malik, M., Berelowitz, M., Dhillon, A., Thomson, M., Harvey, P., Valentine, A., Davies, S., & Walker-Smith, J. (1998). RETRACTED: Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children The Lancet, 351 (9103), 637-641 DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(97)11096-0
2. Godlee F, Smith J, & Marcovitch H (2011). Wakefield’s article linking MMR vaccine and autism was fraudulent. BMJ (Clinical research ed.), 342 PMID: 21209060
3. Cokol M, Iossifov I, Rodriguez-Esteban R, & Rzhetsky A (2007). How many scientific papers should be retracted? EMBO reports, 8 (5), 422-3 PMID: 17471252
4. Cokol M, Ozbay F, & Rodriguez-Esteban R (2008). Retraction rates are on the rise. EMBO reports, 9 (1) PMID: 18174889