When it comes to retractions of scientific papers, there are the spectacular ones involving fraud and other types of research malfeasance, and then there are the ones where some agonizingly small mistake was made — mistakes that, upon their discovery, explode and take the entire paper with it. A study Science of Us covered in March about illness and divorce falls in the latter category.
The study, published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, suggested an important gender divide in how couples handle illness, finding, as we put it in our headline, that “When Older Women — But Not Men — Get Sick, Their Marriages Are More Likely to End in Divorce.”
But as Retraction Watch notes, quoting an email from Amelia Karraker, the researchers arrived at this result because of an error:
Shortly after the paper was published some colleagues from Bowling Green State, I-Fen Lin and Susan Brown, emailed me and my co-author about our estimate of divorce. They were trying to replicate the paper and couldn’t understand why their estimate was so much lower than ours. I sent them the statistical analysis file, which documents all of the steps as to how we came to all the estimates in the paper. And they pointed out to us, to our horror, that we had miscoded the dependent variable…As soon as we realized we made the mistake, we contacted the editor and told him what was happening, and said we made a mistake, we accept responsibility for it.
Specifically, as Karraker told Retraction Watch, “People who left the study were actually miscoded as getting divorced,” which would obviously introduce some problems into the researchers’ subsequent analysis. Once they corrected the mistake, they “found the results stand only when wives develop heart problems, not other illnesses.”
By all accounts it was an honest mistake, but retractions are costly for everyone involved.