Why MacArthur is Backing a Popular Blog About Flawed and Fraudulent Science

MacArthur just gave $400,000 to a popular blog about flawed and fraudulent science so it can deepen its coverage and build a comprehensive database of journal retractions. We chatted with the program officer behind the grant about why got Mac into the science watchdog game, and the foundation's adventurous side program for such grants. 

Since editor and physician Ivan Oransky and science writer Adam Marcus launched Retraction Watch in 2010, the blog cataloging retracted articles in science journals has drawn a lot of attention, and had more fodder than it can keep up with.

Now, thanks to a two-year grant from the MacArthur Foundation, Retraction Watch is going to expand from a scrappy watchdog to a full-fledged monitoring program that will catalog nearly all retractions issued by major journals in a database, and do deeper analysis of the root causes. 

As Ivan Oransky told the program BioCentury This Week, “It’s easy and fun—and useful—to write about the fraud in particular cases, but looking at the big picture is always much more interesting and important. And so we’re going to be able to do that and to look at the scale of these things and see what’s actually happening.” 

While retractions are still relatively rare in the ocean of work published each year, they’ve been rising rapidly, due to some big, scandalous cases, but also to more systemic problems in the review process. For more than four years now, Retraction Watch has published about 2,000 posts, covering an estimated two-thirds of retractions as they appear. 

With the MacArthur grant, the duo will hire additional staff and create a nearly comprehensive database of retractions issued by the big publishers. There is no such database in existence now, and while there seems to be a hunger for more dialogue and analysis of scientific misconduct, it’s still lacking. 

Related: Six Funders Working to Set Science Free

Retraction Watch will also produce more long-form reports on some of the big questions concerning rates of retraction in different disciplines, countries, and journals, and what can be done to clamp down on this trend. 

The news of the grant caused ripples of excitement, or at least intrigue, in much of the scientific community when it was announced, as what was once kind of a hobby was well-received among peers who believed something like this has been a long time coming. It’s also a unique grant for MacArthur, which ends up backing a lot of research, but is not typically what you’d call a science funder. 

I spoke briefly with MacArthur’s Jeff Ubois, program officer in Media, Culture, and Special Initiatives, about why the funder was drawn to Retraction Watch, and decided to take the plunge on the small band of science vigilantes.

“They were on our radar from interactions from multiple people,” said Ubois, who had heard about the site on the MacArthur-backed NPR program On The Media. He also had heard about the program from Stuart Buck, vice president of the Research Integrity program at the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. Arnold has quickly become a leading funder in the realm of integrity in science, giving millions to programs conducting meta-research or otherwise cracking down on shaky studies. 

Related: Why This Funder is Spending Big Money to Clean Up Bad Research

“There were a few things about [Retraction Watch] that were very attractive. One was, it seems like there is a lot of potential with that work to improve academic publishing in a very broad way,” Ubois says.  

The website is about more than just calling out frauds, although that is one of the more enticing functions it performs (who doesn’t like to watch a Dr. Oz-fueled supplement craze taken down?). For example, Oransky and Marcus have said that they’ve learned about the integrity of different fields or publishers based on the openness and honesty with which they treat such misconduct. 

The team's work has potential to provide insight into the scientific process and how different publishers of research operate, Ubois said. That could have implications for the larger issue of vetting authoritative voices, a compelling issue to a funder like MacArthur, which often supports policy work that is rooted in research.

Ubois says, “Almost every big social problem has a dimension where there is some sort of expert or scientific advice being provided. And so anything that has a potential to broadly improve the quality of that advice is attractive.”

Policy aside, the gap in critical monitoring of research actually affects a tremendous number of ordinary people, he said. One clear example of this is drug companies licensing compounds based on results in literature that can’t be reproduced, or trials based on papers that have been retracted. Then there’s the problem of wasted time, with researchers receiving grants to further studies with unreliable outcomes.  

“It seems like kind of an arcane topic, but it has very broad social effects, and it affects a lot more people than you might think," Ubois said. "Every major healthcare advance is documented in peer-reviewed literature.” 

Impressed by the work on Retraction Watch, Ubois said he initially contacted the publication about funding. At MacArthur, he deals with exploratory grants, and this one came from an under-the-radar program called Discovery Grants. The program is highly competitive, and the foundation doesn’t talk about it much, but MacArthur uses it to explore discoveries important to social problems “at the edges or the intersections of MacArthur’s existing programs and strategies, but outside them.” 

Related: MacArthur Foundation: Grants for Science Research 

The program lacks a unifying theme, but grants have often gone to projects at the intersections of technology and society, or issues for which the rapid advance of technology might be outpacing policy. It serves as a way for program staff to stay on their toes in a rapidly changing landscape. 

“There is a strong drive in philanthropy to be more focused and strategic and disciplined, but we also think that peripheral vision is an important complement to focus.” 

Follow Retraction Watch to keep an eye on the team's progress, or just to read about the next busted spurious health trend.