Article retractions — especially those reported in top journals– make headline news and its easy to understand why:
- They feed our insatiable desire for drama;
- Undermine faith in a process that is supposed to be immune to partisan politics and industry influence;
- Provide fodder for outrage on the misuse of public funds and poor government oversight; and
- Leave us feeling robbed from the social good that should come through advances in medical and scientific knowledge.
Reports that journal retractions are up dramatically leads us to ponder whether our collective trust in the institution of science should be called in to question.
On the other hand, a dramatic increase in retractions may simply point out that we are getting better at detecting scientific error and more determined about reporting it. Lacking the drama of the corruption narrative, the diligence narrative gets much less attention in the media.
Two recent papers appearing this year in the Journal of Medical Ethics provide some data to support both sides of the story.
The article,“Why and how do journals retract articles? An analysis of Medline retractions 1988-2008“ by Liz Wager and Peter Williams, reports on an analysis of statements over time.
They report that retractions have increased by tenfold, from a tiny percentage of total publication (0.002%) in the early 1980s to a still tiny, but larger, percentage (0.02%) by the late 2000s. In real terms, the actual numbers are quite small compared to the volume of published literature. This is not to invalidate the severity of a retraction, only that retractions are rare events.
Retracting an article is serious business, as Wager and Williams write:
Retraction is one of the most serious sanctions journals can take against authors in cases of misconduct, and can cause permanent damage to reputations and academic careers. Therefore, retractions should be handled carefully and journals should have processes for deciding when and how to retract articles.
Fearing litigation, it’s not surprising that editors are generally hesitant to retract an article without the author’s permission. In 2009, the British publisher Emerald reversed its decision to retract an article based on evidence of substantial plagiarism. Threatened legal action was considered the reason for the reversal.
Barring litigation, investigating and retracting an article takes substantial time and resources that many editors and publishers may wish to simply ignore. On one occasion, I found myself stonewalled when I presented a clear case of duplicate publication to journal editors. On another, the editor simply deleted the article from the publisher’s database, and no public notice was issued.
In spite of clear guidelines for retraction, as developed by the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), journals do not follow uniform guidelines, report Wager and Williams. They report that some retractions fail to distinguish error from misconduct — the latter is much more egregious — or refuse to provide a reason at all. They write:
Some retraction statements appeared to use deliberately ambiguous wording which made it difficult to distinguish honest errors from suspected (or proven) misconduct.
The article,“Retractions in the scientific literature: is the incidence of research fraud increasing?“ by R. Grant Steen, provides a similar reporting and classification of retraction statements as Wager and Williams. Steen also reports on how publishers alert readers that an article was retracted, and the results are also inconsistent:
Summary of how the naïve reader is alerted to paper retraction (from Table 2)
- Watermark on PDF (41.1%)
- Journal website (33.4%)
- Not noted anywhere (31.8%)
- Note appended to PDF (17.3%)
- pdf deleted from website (13.2%)
It’s hard to get a sense from either of these papers on whether increasing rates of retraction is signaling that the system is getting worse (the corruption viewpoint) or better (the diligence viewpoint). There are arguments to support each side.
Increasing pressure among faculty to publish and providing monetary incentives to publish in high-impact journals, as recently reported in some Chinese universities, may increase the number of cases of misconduct. On the other hand, we also have powerful tools to more easily detect some cases of misconduct, like plagiarism and image manipulation. When these tools are used before publication (as in the case of CrossCheck), they can prevent problematic articles before they reach the published literature.
Given the great rewards that come from scientific publishing and the significant costs and risks that come from article retraction, my own sense is that we are viewing only the outcome of a tiny slice of seriously flawed papers made public and that increased pressure to adhere to ethical standards in publishing is just making this tiny slice appear a little larger.