Q&A with Retraction Watch’s Ivan Oransky

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Ivan Oransky is the vice president and global editorial director of MedPage Today. In 2010, he co-founded Retraction Watch, where he and others discuss the latest news about retractions in scientific journals. If you’d like to support their work, consider donating to their efforts.

In 1998, you obtained your M.D. and by 2013, you had held editing positions at The Scientist, Scientific American and Reuters Health. What made you turn to journalism after medical school?

I had been active in journalism since college – high school, really – and medical school, so when I found myself running home every night after being on call to report and write columns and other assignments, I decided leaving medicine after my internship year would be a good way to see if journalism would work for me in the long term. That was 1999. Fourteen years later, so far, so good.

In 2010, you started Embargo Watch to comment on embargoes in scientific journals. What led you to start Embargo Watch?

I had been thinking about embargoes for several years, ever since writing about a silly sanction the World Health Organization had imposed on the New York Times. I read Vincent Kiernan’s excellent Embargoed Science, and realized that embargoes were helping journals and other scientific institutions control the flow of information. So after following these issues for a few years, I was inspired by my ScienceOnline counterparts to start a blog on the subject. I realized that blogs were perfect vehicles for obsessions such as the one I have about embargoes.

Ivan-OranskyLater that year, you co-founded Retraction Watch, a blog to discuss retracted papers in science. What was your goal with Retraction Watch?

Adam Marcus – he and I co-founded Retraction Watch – would like to see more transparency in science, and particularly when science goes wrong somehow. Retractions are a great window into that. We also found retractions to be a great source of stories. The response to the blog, however – we are on target to beat five million pageviews in 2013, and are mentioned in major media almost every week – has surpassed anything we could have imagined. The conversations people are having about scientific integrity suggest we’ve really hit a nerve.

Have you noticed any trends in the number of papers retracted? Has it gone up in number?

The number of retractions per year grew ten-fold from 2001 to 2010, as has been reported by Nature, while the number of papers published per year has only grown 44%. So clearly, retractions are on the rise.

Is this because there are more flawed papers being published or is it because journals are more proactive about retractions?

This remains the $64,000 question. In a recent paper, Daniele Fanelli argues that it’s mostly because journals have developed policies for retractions, and are looking for fraud. But others – notably Ferric Fang and colleagues – have shown that more retractions are due to misconduct. So it may be both.

You recently joined MedPage Today as Global Editorial Director. What is your role at MedPage and how is the focus different from other publications?

MedPage Today’s core audience is health care providers. We welcome all readers, but we’re geared toward doctors, nurses, physician assistants, and the like. My role is to oversee the editorial staff and strategy. Building on our strengths as the world’s leading provider of clinical news, we’re going to broaden our focus to include more health care provider voices and drive even more engagement with our readers.

In a TEDMED talk you gave in 2012, you spoke about the US being over-medicalized. Could you summarize your thoughts about this issue?

Thanks in no small part to our fee-for-service health care system, the vast majority of incentives drive providers to order more and more tests and procedures, and write more prescriptions. It’s not enough to just treat the real diseases that affect people. Normal variations become diseases that require treatment, which only leads to other conditions that result from those treatments. We’re all part of the problem, though. Americans are not very good at “Don’t just do something, stand there.” The amount of money sloshing around medicine, as others have put it, means that drug companies and hospitals feel the need to constantly create new markets to please investors.

From your profile and your involvement in many projects, it seems you’re highly entrepreneurial. Is that the case? If so, how does an entrepreneurial spirit fit into science and journalism?

I do think it’s important for science journalists to take advantage of what technology now offers in terms of reporting and reaching audiences. What Adam and I are doing with Retraction Watch, what MedPage Today is beginning to do – none of that would have been possible a decade ago, perhaps not even more recently. It’s a really exciting – if unsettling – time in journalism, and I’m enthusiastic about all the new models that are bursting with entrepreneurial spirit.

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