Science publishing: The trouble with retractions
This week, some 27,000 freshly published research articles will pour into the Web of Science, Thomson Reuters’ vast online database of scientific publications. Almost all of these papers will stay there forever, a fixed contribution to the research literature. But 200 or so will eventually be flagged with a note of alteration such as a correction. And a handful — maybe five or six — will one day receive science’s ultimate post-publication punishment: retraction, the official declaration that a paper is so flawed that it must be withdrawn from the literature.
It is reassuring that retractions are so rare, for behind at least half of them lies some shocking tale of scientific misconduct — plagiarism, altered images or faked data — and the other half are admissions of embarrassing mistakes. But retraction notices are increasing rapidly. In the early 2000s, only about 30 retraction notices appeared annually. This year, the Web of Science is on track to index more than 400 (see ’Rise of the retractions’) — even though the total number of papers published has risen by only 44% over the past decade.
Perhaps surprisingly, scientists and editors broadly welcome the trend. “I don’t think there’s any doubt that we’re detecting more fraud, and that systems are more responsive to misconduct. It’s become more acceptable for journals to step in,” says Nicholas Steneck, a research ethicist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. But as retractions become more commonplace, stresses that have always existed in the system are starting to show more vividly.
When the UK-based Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) surveyed editors’ attitudes to retraction two years ago, it found huge inconsistencies in policies and practices between journals, says Elizabeth Wager, a medical writer in Princes Risborough, UK, who is chair of COPE. That survey led to retraction guidelines that COPE published in 2009. But it’s still the case, says Wager, that “editors often have to be pushed to retract”.
Other frustrations include opaque retraction notices that don’t explain why a paper has been withdrawn, a tendency for authors to keep citing retracted papers long after they’ve been red-flagged (see’Withdrawn papers live on’) and the fact that many scientists hear ‘retraction’ and immediately think ‘misconduct’ — a stigma that may keep researchers from coming forward to admit honest errors.