Questions for ‘Retractions: Righting the wrongs of science’


Ten years ago, parents began to worry that vaccines, like the one being administered here, weren't safe. A study had linked those shots to autism. The study would later be retracted, but not until many parents withheld important vaccines from their children. 

Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization/Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0

To accompany feature ‘Retractions: Righting the wrongs of science


Before reading:

  1. “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” This is a common expression in science. Write a brief paragraph explaining its meaning.
  2. If you come across a mistake in an article, book or other document, what is your reaction? Does finding an error affect your attitude toward that document and/or its author? Explain why or why not?

During reading:

  1. What does it mean when a journal retracts a paper?
  2. Explain the role of mistakes in furthering science.
  3. How did a biologist tinker with the HIV vaccine experiment?
  4. Why could a retraction cost a scientist or a research institution money?
  5. Is the number of retractions growing or shrinking?
  6. Explain the role a now-retracted study has played in convincing some parents not to vaccinate their children against measles, mumps and rubella.
  7. In the subway study in New York City, why didn’t the authors have to make a full retraction? What did they do instead?
  8. Can an honest mistake lead to a retraction? Explain your answer, citing details from the article.
  9. What did a team of biologists learn after examining more than 2,000 retracted studies?
  10. What supporting evidence do experts quoted in this article provide in recommending researchers to act honestly when retracting a study?

After reading:

  1. What numbers does the author of this article cite to make the claim that retractions are “extremely rare?” Do you agree?
  2. Explain how the Andrew Wakefield study on autism had an effect on public health.


  1. The article suggests that journals may now be retracting about 400 of the 1,400,000 studies published each year. Express that relationship as a fraction in lowest terms.