Why are research retractions increasing?

Ryoji Noyori, a Nobel Prize-winning chemist and president of Japan's Riken research institute, bows in apology over the flawed stem cell research by one of the Riken's biologists, Haruko Obokata. [Credit: AP/Eugene Hoshiko]

Ryoji Noyori, a Nobel Prize-winning chemist and president of Japan's Riken research institute, bows in apology over the flawed stem cell research by one of the Riken's biologists, Haruko Obokata. [Credit: AP/Eugene Hoshiko]

Bouree Lam at The Atlantic asks whether the number of retractions of research papers is increasing because of more mistakes and misdeeds, or because science is being more closely scrutinised than ever before.

She concludes it's both, and quotes Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus, the co-founders of the blog Retraction Watch. “Retractions are born of many mothers,” they say.

Their blog has logged thousands of retractions over the past five years. 

A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reviewed 2,047 retractions of biomedical and life-sciences articles and found that just 21.3 percent stemmed from straightforward error, while 67.4 percent resulted from misconduct, including fraud or suspected fraud (43.4 percent) and plagiarism (9.8 percent)

Many scientists blame increased competition for academic jobs and research funding, combined with a “publish or perish” culture, says Lam.

Because journals are more likely to accept studies reporting “positive” results (those that support, rather than refute, a hypothesis), researchers may have an incentive to “cook” or “mine” their data to generate a positive finding.

But it could be just that people are looking more than they did. And if that's the case, the solution might also lie with greater scrutiny.

This heightened scrutiny—the very scrutiny that likely contributed to the retractions surge in the first place—could help reverse the tide, by providing a powerful disincentive to bad behavior. As more scientific misconduct is exposed and shamed, researchers who were previously tempted to play fast and loose with their data may now think twice.

Astronomers find supermassive black hole in Earth's nearest quasar

An artist's impression of the two supermassive black holes in Markarian 231. [Credit: Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Maryland]  

An artist's impression of the two supermassive black holes in Markarian 231. [Credit: Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Maryland]

 

University of Oklahoma astrophysicist and his Chinese collaborator have found two supermassive black holes in Markarian 231, the nearest quasar to Earth.

The discovery relied on observations from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope and provide evidence of a binary black hole that suggests supermassive black holes assemble their masses through violent mergers.

"We are extremely excited about this finding because it not only shows the existence of a close binary black hole in Mrk 231, but also paves a new way to systematically search binary black holes via the nature of their ultraviolet light emission," said Youjun Lu, National Astronomical Observatories of China, Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Lu collaborated on the project with Xinyu Dai of the University of Oklahoma.

"The structure of our universe, such as those giant galaxies and clusters of galaxies, grows by merging smaller systems into larger ones, and binary black holes are natural consequences of these mergers of galaxies," said Dai.

So over time, the two black holes discovered by Dai and Lu in Mrk 231 will collide and merge to form a quasar with a supermassive black hole. A quasar is an active galaxy with an illuminated centre, which is short lived compared to the age of the Universe.

Climate change can alter plant genetics

Researchers created different climate change conditions in this semi-natural grassland in Derbyshire. [Credit: University of Liverpool]

Researchers created different climate change conditions in this semi-natural grassland in Derbyshire. [Credit: University of Liverpool]

The genetic diversity of wild plant species could be altered rapidly by climate change, according to a study by the University of Liverpool.

Scientists created specific conditions to study genetic responses of different wild plant species, in a natural grassland ecosystem.

Different scenarios included drought, watering, and warming, over a 15-year period.

Analysis of DNA markers in the plants revealed that the climate change treatments had altered the genetic composition of the plant populations. The results also indicated a process of evolutionary change in one of the study species, suggesting that genetic diversity may be able to buffer plants against the harmful effects of climate change, allowing an "evolutionary rescue"

"Climate change is expected to present a significant challenge to the persistence of many populations of wild plant species," said Dr Raj Whitlock, from the University's Institute of Integrative Biology.

"Our understanding of the potential for such responses to climate change is still limited, and there have been very few experimental tests carried out within intact ecosystems.

"We found that experimental climate change treatments can modify the genetic structure of plant populations within 15 years, which is very fast, in evolutionary terms.

"Evolutionary flexibility within the plant populations ... may help to explain why the grassland there has proven resistant to simulated environmental change."

The experiment took place at the Buxton Climate Change Impacts Laboratory (BCCIL) in Derbyshire, where intact species-rich limestone grassland has been subjected to experimentally manipulated climate treatments since 1993 (involving summer drought, increased temperature, and enhanced rainfall). BCCIL was set up by Prof Phil Grime (University of Sheffield), and is currently run by Dr Jason Fridley (Syracuse University) and Prof Grime, with support from the USA's National Science Foundation. Climate treatments at the site are amongst the longest-running multi-factor climate manipulations anywhere in the world.

Do some sub-atomic particles defy the standard model?

The LHCb experiment at CERN's Large Hadron Collider show proton-proton collisions at the interaction point (far left) resulting in a shower of leptons and other charged particles. The yellow and green lines are computer-generated reconstructions of the particles' trajectories through the layers of the LHCb detector. [Credit: CERN/LHCb Collaboration

The LHCb experiment at CERN's Large Hadron Collider show proton-proton collisions at the interaction point (far left) resulting in a shower of leptons and other charged particles. The yellow and green lines are computer-generated reconstructions of the particles' trajectories through the layers of the LHCb detector. [Credit: CERN/LHCb Collaboration

A new study of experiments in the Large Hadron Collider suggest that some particles – leptons, to be precise – are being treated by forces in strange ways not predicted by the Standard Model.

The Standard Model of particle physics explains most of the known behaviours and interactions of fundamental subatomic particles. It has held up well over the years despite some shortcomings, notably its inability to account for gravity.  

The team of CERN physicists analysed data collected by the LHCb detector during the first run of the LHC in 2011-12.

The researchers looked at B meson decays – processes that produce lighter particles, including two types of leptons: the tau lepton and the muon.

Unlike their stable lepton cousin, the electron, tau leptons and muons are highly unstable and quickly decay within a fraction of a second.

According to a Standard Model concept called "lepton universality," which assumes that leptons are treated equally by all fundamental forces, the decay to the tau lepton and the muon should both happen at the same rate, once corrected for their mass difference. However, the team found a small, but notable, difference in the predicted rates of decay, suggesting that as-yet undiscovered forces or particles could be interfering in the process.

"The Standard Model says the world interacts with all leptons in the same way. There is a democracy there. But there is no guarantee that this will hold true if we discover new particles or new forces," said study co-author Hassan Jawahery of the University of Maryland.

"Lepton universality is truly enshrined in the Standard Model. If this universality is broken, we can say that we've found evidence for non-standard physics."

More from the University of Maryland here.

Plane dropped from 30 metres in impact safety test

For the third time in less than two months, researchers at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, have sent a small aircraft plummeting to the ground in a drop test meant to simulate a severe, but survivable crash.

The 1974 Cessna 172 plunged 100 feet, a little over 30 metres, into a pile of dirt. The data from the test will specifically provide guidance on the installation of emergency locator transmitters so they're more likely to work after a crash. 

NASA concludes engine test for next gen rocket

The RS-25 engine fires up for a 535-second test Aug. 27, 2015 at NASA's Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. This is the final in a series of seven tests for the development engine, which will provide NASA engineers critical data on the engine controller unit and inlet pressure conditions. [Credit: NASA]  

The RS-25 engine fires up for a 535-second test Aug. 27, 2015 at NASA's Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. This is the final in a series of seven tests for the development engine, which will provide NASA engineers critical data on the engine controller unit and inlet pressure conditions. [Credit: NASA]

 

NASA has completed the first developmental test series on the RS-25 engines that will power the agency’s new Space Launch System (SLS) rocket that will take astronauts to Mars and deeper into space.

The test series wrapped up with a seventh hot fire test of a developmental RS-25 engine on the A-1 Test Stand at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. The test ran for a full-duration 535 seconds.

“The completion of this test series is an important step in getting SLS ready for the journey to Mars,” said Steve Wofford, engines manager at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, where the SLS Program is managed for the agency.

“The RS-25 engine gives SLS a proven, high performance, affordable main propulsion system. It is one of the most experienced large rocket engines in the world, with more than a million seconds of ground test and flight operations time.”

For more information about SLS, visit http://www.nasa.gov/sls

Rare nautilus sighted for first time in 30 years

Allonautilus scrobiculatus off the coast of Ndrova Island in Papua New Guinea. [Credit: Peter Ward]

Biologist Peter Ward has recorded a sighting in the South Pacific of an Allonautilus scrobiculatus, a species of nautilus considered one of the world's rarest animals.

Ward and a colleague previously discovered the species of nautilus off of Ndrova Island in Papua New Guinea.

Nautiluses are small, distant cousins of squid and cuttlefish with an accent lineage, so ancient they are often called "living fossils". Their distinctive shells appear in the fossil record over a 500 million year period.

Ward says this recent sighting of Allonautilus indicates that there is still much to learn about these creatures. The University of Washington professor hasn't seen one in 30 years. He says that they are threatened by illegal fishing.

"Before this, two humans had seen Allonautilus scrobiculatus," said Ward, who holds appointments at the UW in both the Department of Biology and the Department of Earth and Space Sciences.

"My colleague Bruce Saunders from Bryn Mawr College found Allonautilus first, and I saw them a few weeks later."

Those sightings were in 1984. Ward and Saunders collected several Allonautilus scrobiculatus specimens for analysis and realised that their gills, jaws, shell shape and male reproductive structures differ significantly from other nautilus species.

"Some features of the nautilus – like the shell giving it the 'living fossil' label – may not have changed for a long time, but other parts have," said Ward.

Nautilus pompilius (left) swimming next to a rare Allonautilus scrobiculatus (right) off of Ndrova Island in Papua New Guinea. [Credit: Peter Ward]  

Nautilus pompilius (left) swimming next to a rare Allonautilus scrobiculatus (right) off of Ndrova Island in Papua New Guinea. [Credit: Peter Ward]

 

Astronaut Andreas Mogensen prepares for 10 days in space

Andreas ready for launch [Credit: Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre]

Andreas ready for launch [Credit: Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre]

European Space Agency astronaut Andreas Mogensen will spend 10 days in space on a mission to the International Space Station.

He leaves Earth on 2 September in the Soyuz TMA-18M spacecraft with commander Sergei Volkov and Kazakh cosmonaut Aidyn Aimbetov.

The three men are staying near the launchpad in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, preparing for launch. This image was taken as Andreas was making sure his Sokol suit fits correctly. He will wear this suit for launch and landing, and it will protect him in case of an emergency.

Follow the whole mission with live updates via the iriss mission blog and Twitter via @esaoperations

Twin jet nebular floats like a butterfly in space

The shimmering colours visible in this NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image show off the remarkable complexity of the Twin Jet Nebula. [Credits: ESA/Hubble & NASA, Acknowledgement: Judy Schmidt]

NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) have released a new image from the Hubble Space Telescope of the Twin Jet Nebula, also known as PN M2-9.

The ESA explains:

The M in this name refers to Rudolph Minkowski, a German-American astronomer who discovered the nebula in 1947. The PN, meanwhile, refers to the fact that M2-9 is a planetary nebula. The glowing and expanding shells of gas clearly visible in this image represent the final stages of life for an old star of low to intermediate mass. The star has not only ejected its outer layers, but the exposed remnant core is now illuminating these layers — resulting in a spectacular light show. However, the Twin Jet Nebula is not just any planetary nebula, it is a bipolar nebula.

Ordinary planetary nebulae have one star at their center, bipolar nebulae have two, in a binary star system.

The two stars in this pair each have around the same mass as the Sun, ranging from 0.6 to 1.0 solar masses for the smaller star, and from 1.0 to 1.4 solar masses for its larger companion.

The larger star is approaching the end of its days and has already ejected its outer layers of gas into space, whereas its partner is further evolved, and is a small white dwarf.

The characteristic shape of the wings of the Twin Jet Nebula is most likely caused by the motion of the two central stars around each other. It is believed that  as the dying star and white dwarf orbit around their common center of mass, the ejected gas from the dying star is pulled into two lobes rather than expanding as a uniform sphere. However, astronomers are still debating whether all bipolar nebulae are created by binary stars. Meanwhile the nebula’s wings are still growing and, by measuring their expansion, astronomers have calculated that the nebula was created only 1,200 years ago.

More information on Hubble here.

NASA focus on sea level rise - How much? How fast?

An iceberg floats in Disko Bay, near Ilulissat, Greenland, in July this year. The massive Greenland ice sheet is shedding about 300 gigatons of ice a year into the ocean, making it the single largest source of sea level rise from melting ice. [Credits: NASA/Saskia Madlener]

Seas around the world have risen an average of 7.6 centimetre since 1992, with some locations rising more than 23 centimetres due to natural variation, according to the latest satellite measurements from NASA and its partners.

The space agency is now providing its observations and analysis for an intensive research effort that points to an unavoidable rise of a metre or more in the future.

“We’ve seen from the paleoclimate record that sea level rise of as much as 10 feet in a century or two is possible, if the ice sheets fall apart rapidly,” said Tom Wagner, the cryosphere program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

“We’re seeing evidence that the ice sheets are waking up, but we need to understand them better before we can say we’re in a new era of rapid ice loss.”

NASA has been recording the height of the ocean surface from space since 1992. That year, NASA and the French space agency, CNES, launched the first of a series of spaceborne altimeters that have been making continuous measurements ever since. The first instrument, Topex/Poseidon, and its successors, Jason-1 and -2, have recorded about 2.9 inches (7.4 centimeters) of rise in sea level averaged over the globe.
In the 21st century, two new sensing systems have proven to be invaluable complements to the satellite altimetry record. In 2002, NASA and the German space agency launched the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) twin satellites. These measure the movement of mass, and hence gravity, around Earth every 30 days. Earth's land masses move very little in a month, but its water masses move through melting, evaporation, precipitation and other processes. GRACE records these movements of water around the globe. The other new system is the multinational Argo array, a network of more than 3,000 floating ocean sensors spread across the entire open ocean.

The last house on Holland Island in Chesapeake Bay, Maryland, collapsed a few months after this photo was taken in 2010 -- the victim of postglacial rebound and rising global sea levels. Settled in the 1600s, the island is now completely under water at high tide. [Credits: Image courtesy Flickr user baldeaglebluff/CC BY]

 

But not everyone is affected equally, NASA says. According to the 23-year record of satellite data from NASA and its partners, the sea level is rising a few millimeters a year.

If you live on the US East Coast, though, your sea level is rising two or three times faster than average. If you live in Scandinavia, it's falling. Residents of China's Yellow River delta are swamped by sea level rise of more than nine inches (25 centimeters) a year.

These regional differences in sea level change will become even more apparent in the future, as ice sheets melt.

NASA's Oceans Melting Greenland field campaign is gathering data to clarify how warm ocean water is speeding the loss of Greenland's glaciers. [Credit: NordForsk]

 

The Greenland Ice Sheet is one of the crucial regions to watch. This summer, a refitted fishing boat is mapping the seafloor around Greenland as the first step in a six-year research program to document the loss of ice in NASA's Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) field campaign.

"A lot of the major uncertainty in future sea level rise is in the Greenland Ice Sheet," said OMG principal investigator Josh Willis, a scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

At about 660,000 square miles (1.7 million square kilometers), the ice sheet is three times the size of Texas. It's about a mile deep on average and contains enough water to raise global sea levels about 20 feet (6 meters), if it were all to melt.

"The question is how fast it's melting," Willis said.

You can see the results of the research in greater detail at the NASA website, Rising Seas: Frontiers of Climate Science

Cosmos editor-in-chief wins Eureka Prize

Cosmos Magazine editor-in-chief Elizabeth Finkel  has won the Department of Industry and Science Eureka Prize for Science Journalism.

Her winning entry was a feature article on the controversial subject of statins – Will a statin a day really keep the doctor away? 

In the video above, Dr Finkel explains how science journalism is not always the tame business we assume it to be.

Presented annually by the Australian Museum, the Australian Museum Eureka Prizes reward excellence in the fields of research & innovation, leadership, science communication & journalism and school science. 

You can see more on the Australian Museum Eureka Prize website.