Science gift guide

Gift ideas for the science enthusiast in your life

Science gift guide

Whether you’re tempted to spoil a loved one or just treat yourself, this season brings a variety of science-licious items to satiate the holiday season’s gifting hunger. Find gifts for the young and the mature alike below.

PHOTO VIA ETSY

Dinosaur skull prints  

These handmade two-colour prints are made by the Toronto-based couple Fabled Creative. They include posters of dinosaur skulls, ideal wall art for dino-enthusiasts.

Available from Fabled Creative on Etsy, $27.48

PHOTO VIA ETSY

Science-themed coasters  

These colourful coasters are a great way to prevent cup stains on your wooden furniture. With a cup in hand, you can start conversations or learn interesting facts about your favourite topic — be it math, statistics, chemistry, or biology.

Available from TheChemistTree on Etsy, $38.47

PHOTO VIA AMAZON

Space capsule tea infuser

Capturing the splashdown of astronauts in the ocean after returning from space, this capsule holds loose leaf tea for an “out of this world” brewing experience.

Available from ThinkGeek on Amazon from $13.99

PHOTO VIA ETSY

Crocheted organs and cells

PurpleLilacAmigurumi is a science crochet store created by U of T PhD candidate Tahani Baakdhah. A number of cuddly, detailed crochets of organs and cells are available, as Baakdhah uses her skills with yarn to communicate her science knowledge.

Available from PurpleLilaAmigurumi on Etsy, starting at $4.12

PHOTO VIA MASTERMIND TOYS

Build your own jet engine

A DIY project for the turbo-lover, this is a simplified working model of a two-spool turbofan engine.

Available through Mastermind Toys, $39.99 on clearance

PHOTO VIA THINKGEEK

Hatching dinosaur candle

This egg-shaped candle burns to reveal the porcelain figurine of a hatchling dinosaur.

Available through ThinkGeek, USD$29.99

PHOTO VIA AMAZON

Cuddly microbes

Pathogens are not really that bad; they’re just misunderstood. So cuddle with plushy versions of microbes responsible for the flu, common cold, or staph infections.

Available through Amazon, starting at $12.95

PHOTO VIA SPARKFUN

Weather station kit

This build-your-own weather monitoring kit contains a rain gauge, an anemometer to measure wind speed, and a wind vane for direction. It will ensure that you always have an answer to the question, ‘what’s the weather like outside?’

Available at Sparkfun, USD$76.95

PHOTO VIA FAT BRAIN TOYS

Edible chemistry kit

It’s like a collaboration between Willy Wonka and a chemist!

Available from Fat Brain Toys, $26.37

PHOTO VIA YAS PETIT POULET

Queer Chemistry enamel pins

These are an elegantly designed series of enamel pins by Toronto-based artist Yas Petit Poulet, dealing with questions of self-identification, labelling, and acceptance. Through Queer Chemistry, marginalized gender identities, sexual identities, and labels of attraction are presented in the form of chemical elements in the periodic table.

Available from Yas Petit Poulet, $10.00

Audio pleasures for science enthusiasts

10 science podcasts to feed your brain

Audio pleasures for science enthusiasts

Podcasts are one of the best alternative information sources to reach for when you’re too exhausted to read. Whether you are new to podcasts or are a long-time listener, or if you want an episode for your commute or before you fall asleep, there is something there for you. From the latest finds to improving your life, here are 10 science podcasts that could work for you.

60-Second Science

As the semester comes to an end, it may become harder to find the time to feed your curiosity about science outside of textbooks. While 60-Second Science is slightly longer than its name suggests, it usually takes less than three minutes for leading scientists and journalists to comment on noteworthy scientific findings, from genome-related health care to polar lightning on Jupiter.

Hidden Brain

Hosted by longtime National Public Radio social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam, Hidden Brain is about “why people behave the way they behave.” This podcast connects our everyday experience with research in the social sciences, including psychology, anthropology, and economics, to provide insights on how you can use this knowledge to change your own behaviour.

Undiscovered

Co-hosted by U of T alum Elah Feder, Undiscovered is a seasonal podcast from Science Friday. In these documentary-style episodes, the undiscovered stories behind science — how and why the research is conducted, what the results mean, and what new questions they bring — is presented to the audience through a mix of narration and interviews.

Houston We Have a Podcast

The official podcast of the NASA Johnson Space Center, Houston We Have a Podcast is for listeners interested in human spaceflight. Perhaps the most relatable episodes are those featuring people in supporting roles, such as photographers and historians. While these individuals are usually not engineers or astronauts, they perform equally interesting and important roles at NASA.

The Guardian’s Science Weekly

The Guardian’s Science Weekly covers discoveries and discussions in all branches of science. Some episodes are accompanied by audio tours of labs and gardens in the UK.

More or Less: Behind the Stats

Numbers can be presented in different ways, some convincing while others deceiving. Living in the modern world means that our lives are largely driven by data, so it is particularly important for us to understand the statistics used in everyday life. This expertly produced podcast by BBC Radio 4 interprets numbers in survey results, research papers, and political campaigns for an accessible and engaging listen.

Nature Podcast

For a more serious take on science and research, Nature Podcast is the one for you. Through interviews conducted by Nature journalists and editors, listeners are privy to exclusive conversations with the scientists behind some of the most exciting research being conducted right now.

Raw Talk Podcast

Currently in its third season, Raw Talk is hosted by graduate students U of T’s Institute of Medical Science. In a recent episode, the production team presents an in-depth discussion about medical devices with patients, research students, and Dr. David Urbach, Surgeon-in-Chief at Women’s College Hospital.

View to the U

Another product of U of T, View to the U features research at UTM. In each episode, UTM faculty from different disciplines are invited to talk about their work and research on campus. The current season, “Women in Academia,” focuses on female professors and their research, from anthropology to psychology to geography.

Hello PhD

For all aspiring young scientists, this podcast provides handy advice on making it through a PhD program. You can find information about almost every stage of graduate school, including applications, research, dissertations, and career options after graduation. If your mind has been bombarded with hardcore knowledge, listening to someone share their stories of success and failure could be a good idea.

UTSC researchers awarded NSERC instrumentation grants

Professors Ruby Sullan and Maithe Arruda-Carvalho will use the grants to accelerate their research

UTSC researchers awarded NSERC instrumentation grants

Each year, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) awards Research Tools and Instruments (RTI) Grants to researchers who require specific tools to conduct their research.

Earlier in November, Professors Ruby Sullan and Maithe Arruda-Carvalho were awarded NSERC-RTI grants.

RTI grants are awarded based on the need for particular instruments, the merit of the research programs and applicants, and the contribution that the equipment will have on the training of research personnel, like students.

Ruby Sullan and biofilms

Sullan is a professor in the Department of Physical and Environmental Sciences at UTSC. Her research lies in understanding the stages of bacterial biofilm development.

Biofilms are a major reason for hospital-acquired infections because they easily form on the surfaces of biomedical and implanted devices, like catheters and intrauterine devices.

Sullan and her team hope to better understand major contributors of biofilm formation and ultimately encapsulate antimicrobial agents in nanoparticles that can target and eradicate the initial adhesions that cause the initiation and maturation of biofilms.

Her team will use the NSERC-RTI grant to install a Dynamic Light Scattering (DLS) system for biological chemistry studies.

According to Sullan, the DLS system is a particle analyzer and will be used to characterize nanoparticles for effective and targeted treatment of electrochemical sensor development against biofilms.

The DLS system can also be used to monitor the mechanisms and kinetics of protein aggregations. This can enable scientists to learn more about disease progression caused by protein aggregation, like neurodegenerative diseases.

Sullan also mentioned that the DLS system will be used by a number of other research groups, and it will be used to address a wide range of research questions and themes in biophysical research.

Maithe Arruda-Carvalho and brain development

Another recipient of an NSERC-RTI grant, Arruda-Carvalho works in the Department of Psychology at UTSC and is cross-appointed to the Department of Cell & Systems Biology at UTSG.

Arruda-Carvalho’s research is directed toward extending current knowledge about the maturation of neural networks, like emotional processing, that shape our complex behaviour and sensitivity to stress through to adulthood.

Carvalho and her research team are particularly interested in investigating how changes in brain development caused by early life experiences influence neural circuits and ultimately affect behaviour.

The onset of most mental illnesses first manifest during childhood and adolescence. This suggests the importance of proper brain development during these critical periods of life.

With the funding from the NSERC-RTI grant, Arruda-Carvalho and her lab will explore developmental windows during which critical neural connections of brain regions involved in decision making emerge and how they are fine-tuned with age.

The Dawn of Life

The Royal Ontario Museum’s exhibit will travel four billion years back in time

The Dawn of Life

Last week, the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) finalized plans to build The Willner Madge Gallery, Dawn of Life. As its name suggests, the Dawn of Life will feature fossils from the start of life about four billion years ago until the appearance of dinosaurs over 200 million years ago.

Professor in the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology and Department of Earth Sciences Jean-Bernard Caron and his research team travelled to the Burgess Shale and collected some of the fossils that will become a focus of Dawn of Life.

“Without the close relationship we have with U of T, this would not be possible,” said Caron, who is also the Richard M. Ivey Curator of Invertebrate Paleontology at the ROM. “Without students, my collection would be a pile of rocks.”’

Showcasing Canada’s ancient past

The Cambrian Explosion occured 542 million years ago. This period marked the rapid appearance of diversified animals and mineralized fossils.

The Burgess Shale in British Columbia contains a myriad of fossils from the Cambrian period. In particular, the Burgess Shale is known for its intricate preservation of soft-bodied animals. Many of the fossils from this UNESCO World Heritage site provide a wealth of information that cannot be found anywhere else.

Caron initiated the Burgess Shale projects after joining the ROM in 2006, providing insight into Canada’s ancient past.

In addition to the Burgess Shale, fossils from Mistaken Point in Newfoundland, Parc national de Miguasha and Anticosti island in Québec, and Joggins Fossil Cliffs in Nova Scotia will also be on display.

Featured fossils

The fossils in this exhibit are not only relics of the past, but are also representative of Canada’s rich archaeological history.

In 1886, Canadian geologist Richard G. McConnell collected fossils from the Mount Stephen Trilobite Beds in the Canadian Rockies. McConnell ended up with a collection of trilobites, one of the earliest arthropods. But he also recovered fossils that didn’t belong to trilobites. These fossils had unusual appendages and created confusion among researchers who followed in McConnell’s tracks.

In 1892, Joseph Whiteaves described the specimen as a shrimp. In 1911, Charles Walcott found a complete version of the specimen and described it as a sea cucumber. Other researchers throughout the twentieth century described the specimen as a sponge or jellyfish.

It wasn’t until 1985 that researchers Harry Whittington and Derek Briggs described two of the species in full, one of which is Anomalocaris canadensis, a basal arthropod related to spiders and shrimp.

Anomalocaridids were large predators that dominated the Cambrian seas roughly 535 million years ago.

In the 1990s, researchers from the ROM collected several, complete Anomalocaridids specimens. And in 1996, researcher Desmond Collins described Anomalocaris canadensis in detail.

This specimen is one of many treasures that will be on display in Dawn of Life.

PHOTO BY JEAN BERNARD CARON, COURTESY OF THE ROM (Click to Expand)

Visitors will also be able to view banded iron formation — from the Nuvvuagittuq Greenstone Belt in northern Québec — which contains the earliest evidence of life on earth.

PHOTO BY DR. JONATHAN O’NEIL & PITUVIK LANDHOLDING, COURTESY OF THE ROM (Click to Expand)

At the preview last week, visitors had the chance to see Acutiramus macrophthalmus in person. The fossil is the world’s largest specimen of its kind. It’s not evident from its large size, but the 420-million-year-old specimen is a distant relative to horseshoe crabs.

PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ROM (Click to Expand)

A 370-million-year-old Eusthenopteron fish and a Xenasaphus devexus trilobite are examples of some of the other fossils that will be featured.

SRIVINDHYA KOLLURU/THE VARSITY (Click to Expand)

 

PHOTO BY BRIAN BOYLE, COURTESY OF THE ROM (Click to Expand)

Construction of the Dawn of Life is slated to begin in 2019 and the ROM hopes to open the exhibit in 2021. Meanwhile, a preview of the gallery is located on the second-floor rotunda.

Dinosaur teeth uncover evolutionary secrets

UTM paleontologists search the past to learn how mammalian teeth evolved

Dinosaur teeth uncover evolutionary secrets

UTM paleontologists, professor Robert Reisz and former PhD student Aaron LeBlanc, published studies in PLOS One and the Proceedings of the Royal Society B that shed light on the complex evolution of teeth.

In PLOS One, Reisz and co-authors published an article that discusses Changchunsaurus parvus from the ornithopod family of dinosaurs. Ornithopods are herbivorous dinosaurs. Based on fossil records, ornithopods used their beaks to rip plants from the ground and had muscles to chew through coarse vegetation.

Reisz and LeBlanc explored the importance of this species in understanding the evolution of dentition in dinosaurs and a newfound form of teeth replacement.

LeBlanc’s study in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B located points of evolutionary change in mammalian dentition and delved into how mammalian dentition has evolved over the last 300 million years.

Both studies examined the fossil record by sawing off thin slices of tissue from the desired region. These slices were then polished to create transparent samples. The resulting slice was then subjected to three-dimensional analysis and subsequent computer configuration.

Herbivorous ornithopods are often studied due to the myriad of dental innovations they developed to cope with their diet. C. parvus was specifically studied, as it precedes major innovations in dinosaur dentistry and was thought to possess an ancestral version of previously investigated structures.

The thin sections examined confirmed the function of some components of the dental network. However, they also exhibited a novel form of tooth replacement, which was essential in herbivores due to the extensive pressures of a plant-based diet.

Reisz’s study also solidified that C. parvus had the earliest known occurrence of wavy enamel. This type of enamel was previously disassociated with the ornithopod family and its discovery in C. parvus opens their phylogenetic relationships for discussion.

The results are significant. C. parvus appears at a pivotal point in the evolutionary history of the tooth and understanding its dentition better will lead to a more complete understanding of teeth in general.

LeBlanc’s study examined tooth complexity.

Researchers previously believed that mammals had the most complex form of teeth, while reptiles possessed a simpler version. This was a result of mammals having a ligamentous attachment mechanism for teeth compared to the reptilian teeth being fused directly to the jaw.

But through observing thin sections of therapsid — early reptiles — teeth, Reisz and LeBlanc observed ligamentous structures similar to mammals.

Further study of thin sections from a variety of organisms implied that teeth ligaments developed before the divergence of mammals from reptiles, and that the reptilian fused teeth arrangement is in fact due to calcification — the accumulation of solid calcium deposits — of teeth over time.

Insight into dental history allows for a more comprehensive understanding of our teeth, and the resulting development of new theories, techniques, and explanations in dentition.

The Arctic haze

Suspended particulate matter could have drastic effects on our climate

The Arctic haze

Each spring in the Arctic, haze blankets the atmosphere. The particles that make up this ‘Arctic haze’ are known as aerosols and have wide-ranging effects on health and climate.

Dr. Megan Willis, a former postdoctoral fellow at U of T, recently published an article in the Reviews of Geophysics about the threats that atmospheric aerosols pose to the environment.

“We have learned a lot about Arctic aerosol in the last 10 to 15 years, and I think we have identified some of the important gaps in our knowledge,” Willis said in an email to The Varsity. “If we want to have a good understanding of how our climate will change in response to greenhouse gases we need to understand what aerosol does to the climate.”

What are atmospheric aerosols?

Aerosols are liquid and solid particles that are less than 1/75th the width of a human hair and largely originate from from Canadian, European, and Russian cities.

Long-distance transport of spring aerosols to the Arctic occurs through tropospheric currents transporting air from Eurasia to North America, though the permeable Arctic front seldom experiences the removal processes such as rain and snow. During transport, the chemicals mix, some are removed, and the smallest form clouds.

These aerosols are mainly composed of sulfates, black carbon, organic carbon, mineral dust, volcanic sulfur, and suspended sea salt. The first three originate largely from anthropogenic sources.

The accumulation of atmospheric aerosols in the Arctic will have long-term consequences. For example, the expansion of the oil and gas industry into the Arctic will release black carbon, which is known to cause a warming effect. Climate change has also resulted in the loss of sea ice in the Arctic, and this increases the presence of aerosol precursors.

By contrast, increased shipping activity is known to emit climate-cooling aerosols, and a decrease in shipping travel distance is said to reduce carbon emissions.

What is being done to reduce atmospheric aerosols?

According to Willis, groups like the International Arctic Science Committee and the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program provide international communities with opportunities to assess Arctic aerosol and other forms of pollution.

“We don’t know enough about how aerosol impacts the global climate system to be sure about what the effect would be of, for example, [releasing] aerosol into the stratosphere with the hope of offsetting greenhouse gas warming,” Willis wrote. “Such measures could have very undesirable consequences on precipitation patterns.”

Willis, who previously researched atmospheric aerosols in the Abbatt Group in U of T’s Department of Chemistry, continues to research natural and anthropogenic aerosol in the Arctic.

“Some examples [of remaining open questions] include how emissions of gas-phase organic compounds contribute to Arctic aerosol and how these might change with decreasing sea ice, and how aerosol emitted locally in the Arctic under cold and dark conditions is chemically processed and removed,” wrote Willis.

‘Black box’ collects data from the operating room

U of T professor Teodor Grantcharov’s invention could improve medical outcomes

‘Black box’ collects data from the operating room

Akin to a black box in an aircraft, a black box in the operating room (OR) can provide valuable insights.

The OR black box records information during a surgery that is then analyzed to determine how interactions between the surgical team, the environment, and human components factor into patient outcomes.

Dr. Teodor Grantcharov, staff surgeon at St. Michael’s Hospital and professor in the Faculty of Medicine, developed the OR black box in 2017. One of the driving reasons for creating it is that the operating room can be secretive.

“The reason why we developed it is because we felt that we lack transparency, we lack data about our performance as surgeons, as teams, as organizations. We lack data from the operating room,” said Grantcharov.

“Nobody knows what happens there,” said Grantcharov. “Whatever happens there stays there, and we make mistakes, we have successes and failures, but we have very little opportunity to understand them, to study them, and to improve in the future.”

According to Grantcharov, the black box could change this and allow health care providers to recognize and learn from their mistakes, and improve medical outcomes for patients.

“Without data, we can’t improve, and we felt that the OR black box could provide some more insight and some more data that we could use to critically reflect and see opportunities to get better,” said Grantcharov.

The black boxes document everything that occurs in an operating room, and not just the surgical procedure.

It collects video recordings, audio, environmental factors like fluctuations in noise levels and temperature, and minute details like the opening and closing of doors. Furthermore, it collects information on the performance of the surgical team, patient physiology, and the instruments used.

Grantcharov added that the black box analyzes correlations “between performance and outcomes, between stress and performance, between fatigue and performance, and between communication and performance, in any particular outcome.”

Improvements in health care can be made from analyzing such data.

For example, data from the black box indicated that the more people were in the room, the higher the risk of an error.

“We looked at the policy of our hospital which was ‘keep room traffic to a minimum,’” explained Grantcharov.

“So now, we can say for this type of procedure, there shouldn’t be more than 10 people or eight people, and if there are more they [have to] come another day,” continued Grantcharov. “[We] can create the system where we reduce, we restrict access, we can create a system where we eliminate the external communication, especially in most critical steps of the procedure.”

Currently, OR black boxes are used at St. Michael’s Hospital, Humber River Hospital, and North York General Hospital.

To evaluate the effectiveness of the OR black box, Grantcharov and his team need sufficient data to observe trends and draw conclusions.

In fact, associate professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health Patricia Trbovich and her research team are using grants from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and the Ontario Centres of Excellence to examine the data black boxes collect and their overall effectiveness.

The instrument also allows medical staff from around the world to learn from one another.

“We can see, if we do something here and a team of surgeons does the same thing in Amsterdam… what are the things that we do better than them so that they can learn from us,” said Grantcharov. “And we want to see what are the things they do better than us so we can learn from them. There is always something to learn from others.”

The OR black box has been used for minimally invasive procedures like laparoscopic surgeries, in which operations happen through small incisions with the aid of a camera. But Grantcharov added that the black box can capture data from any procedure, even ones outside of the OR.

For Grantcharov, the optimal achievement of the OR black box lies in culture change.

“[It can] allow us to make surgery more open, more transparent, and less mystical for patients. [It makes] the operating room more collaborative,” said Grantcharov.

The double standard of retractions

A growing database of retractions reveals scientific research’s commitment to accountability but highlights flaws in its enforcement

The double standard of retractions

What’s in a word?

In the scientific community, the word ‘retraction’ carries with it a pervasive stigma, often conflated with the idea of an academic death penalty. Retractions, or the pulling of a paper from publication, can tarnish a researcher’s reputation, call into question the legitimacy of a lifetime of work, and dismantle careers.

Outside of the personal realm, retractions alter public perceptions of science.

Last month, the Retraction Watch blog released a Retraction Watch Database. The database is a comprehensive list of retractions in scientific journals since 1923. Out of the 18,000 retractions and notes available on the database, 63 are affiliated with U of T.

What constitutes a retraction?

Science prides itself on being self-correcting, and retractions are a powerful mechanism for that self-correction.

When errors are relatively minor and restricted to a small portion of a publication, a complete withdrawal of the scientific finding is unnecessary and a correction may be issued.

The World Association of Medical Editors defines scientific misconduct as including the falsification, distortion, and omission of data; failure to report misconduct; and the destruction of information relevant to a publication.

Retractions are issued to correct the scientific literature and alert readers of the unreliable conclusions of a paper. According to the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), they are “[not] to punish authors who misbehave.”

Yet intent and outcome are not always synchronous. The closure of Toronto-based researchers Dr. Sylvia Asa’s and Dr. Shereen Ezzat’s labs, and the termination of their positions within the University Health Network (UHN), is evidence of how retractions can pose dire consequences to academics’ careers.

Retraction guidelines are inconsistent and could be misinterpreted

Husband-wife duo Asa and Ezzat account for four of U of T’s retractions listed on the Retraction Watch Database. Asa and Ezzat’s cases of scientific misconduct made headlines in the Toronto Star in 2015 and 2016.

They were found responsible for scientific misconduct in the form of material non-compliance. They failed, as principal investigators, to disclose alterations to images and provide preliminary data that matched the published ones in a number of cases of published work.

Asa lost her position as the head of UHN’s Laboratory Medicine Program, the largest program of its kind in Canada, and the UHN imposed sanctions against Asa and Ezzat.

Regarding her 2002 paper, which was one of her articles that was later retracted, Asa told The Varsity that “this was a paper that was almost five years of work. Most of my research starts with a clinical problem, and one of the things I’ve studied is pituitary [tumours].”

“[UHN] claim that two images [of the electrophoresis gels] came from the same one and had been manipulated,” said Asa. “The fact is that we had all the raw data, we had all the original data.”

“Nothing changes anything in that paper, based on the fact that the image was wrong. Patients who have pituitary tumours, for all the people who were involved in the research, all the work that we did is still true,” said Asa. “The results of that paper are no different today.”

The journals in which Asa published her findings were alerted to the irregularities in her research via an outside source.

UHN opened an investigation into Asa’s publications as a result of these allegations, and implicated the pathobiologist in the fabrication and falsification of images. These allegations were challenged in court by Asa and Ezzat, where it was ultimately found that they could not prove who tampered with the images, based on the evidence.

Asa told The Varsity that she felt targeted by the retraction process.

“The retraction process is interesting. It’s definitely necessary. But it has limitations… There have been mechanisms put in place in a lot of different parts of the world, to be more objective and have more standardized criteria for how an investigation is done,” said Asa.

But in a case almost identical to Asa’s, a Montréal researcher was given the opportunity to issue a correction instead of having to retract the entire article.

Cases like this demonstrate the wildly different implementation of retraction guidelines across institutions.

An article in Science suggested that this may be because it is ultimately up to the editors and institutions to determine whether the paper is withdrawn, as COPE only provides guidelines to clarify when a paper should be retracted.

In addition, a study in BMJ Open revealed that retraction notices did not adhere to COPE guidelines in BioMed Central journals. In 11 per cent of retracted articles, the reason for retraction was unclear — six per cent did not state who was retracting the article, while four per cent were retracted simply because not all authors were aware of the paper submission.

The stigma around retractions

A common misconception is that a retraction is invariably associated with data fabrication or scientific misconduct. Yet, of the 63 U of T affiliated papers listed on the Retraction Watch database, only seven are listed for misconduct and eight are listed for fabrication. Fourteen publications have been retracted due to errors in data, attributed to honest error.

Dr. Peter Jüni, Director of the Applied Health Research Centre at St. Michael’s Hospital and professor in the Department of Medicine, has co-authored such a paper.

The publication, a network meta-analysis on the effectiveness of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs for treating osteoarthritis, was published in March 2017 and retracted in July 2017.

A network meta-analysis compares multiple treatment interventions for a condition directly, using existing comparisons of the interventions in published trials, and indirectly, across different trials.

According to Jüni, research assistants in his team had unknowingly incorporated a duplicate article that had “slightly different results extracted twice” to build their meta-analysis.

“The authors published twice, but they didn’t make it clear that these are the results describing the same population with light differences,” said Jüni. “My colleagues decided to re-run the analysis… and eliminate the duplicate article and… add two new articles that were brought up by colleagues.”

“Now if you include all of those… in an integrated analysis… your numbers will change very slightly,” explained Jüni. “The conclusions of the paper didn’t change at all.”

Jüni recognized the duplicated paper, and the authors were alerted to the two missed trials via colleagues in Ottawa.

Although the error was minimal in nature, The Lancet and the authors agreed it was more feasible to retract and republish the article, as the error ran through different parts of the results and several portions of the paper.

Jüni recognized a flaw in the retraction process that could be exacerbated by the associated stigma of retraction.

“If this is not indexed properly, which was happening at the beginning — the National Library of Medicine just pointed to the retracted article, but it was not clear in PubMed or Medline that this was basically paired with a republication — then it could mean potential questions regarding your reputation,” said Jüni. “The question is then, should we call it differently?”

“Would I prefer to have another label associated with it? Yes, because of the associated stigma — but I don’t think it will happen and I think the important part is that the indexing system changes their way of reporting it. It’s not optimal, but honestly, I can live with it. And obviously I have to live with it,” continued Jüni.

Despite the sting of retractions and the potential fallout, Jüni believes that researchers have an obligation to self-report mistakes.

“You need to live as a leader, in a culture where everybody admits [they don’t] know or [made] a mistake. I need to start with that as the Director of Applied Health Research — if I don’t live it, my people don’t dare admit mistakes. We need that to make research better. That’s part of the quality assurance process.”

It is clear that the retraction process is flawed — it holds too much stigma, does not implement guidelines consistently, and fails on many occasions to communicate to the public the reasons for paper withdrawal. However, it is currently the only system we have to correct the literature and protect scientific endeavours.

What implications do retractions have for scientific research?

Trudo Lemmens, professor and chair of the Department of Health Law and Policy at the Faculty of Law, believes that the increase in the number of retractions may be due to a growing concern around scientific integrity due to a growth in scientific publications over the years.

Science reports that an increase in retractions could be attributed to more comprehensive oversight from scientific journals. Though editorial practices differ from journal to journal, a rise in retractions hints at stricter editorial practices.

In 2009, COPE published guidelines that suggest a publication should be retracted if the findings are unreliable due to scientific misconduct, plagiarism, duplication, or honest error. By 2015, these guidelines were adopted by two-thirds of 147 high-impact journals, and have helped standardize the retraction process.

Editor’s Note (November 27): A previous version of this article incorrectly suggested that Jüni’s assistants were the ones to discover the duplicate.