Is the journal retraction rate rising?

Is the journal retraction rate rising?

Research papers go through a long and thorough process of peer review so that the published papers are free of errors and mistakes. Despite this, sometimes some errors may remain unnoticed. The guidelines of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) recommend a correction if “a small portion of an otherwise reliable article proves to be misleading (especially because of honest error).” Most papers have only technical errors, like an incorrect correspondence address, which require just an erratum notice for reprints. However, at times, far more grave blunders may slip into the published journal, requiring an entire article be pulled down. The number of such retracted scholarly articles has risen greatly in recent years. Although the number of scientific journals and articles published each year is increasing, so is the rate of papers being retracted for being invalid. This trend is widely seen across disciplines. Scientific misconduct — including fraud, suspected fraud and plagiarism — is the reason behind most retractions of papers published in scientific journals.

Many studies have been conducted to understand the trends in the scientific journal retraction rate and how it has risen over the decades. A study published in PLOS ONE, aiming to understand the scope and characteristics of retracted articles across the full spectrum of scholarly disciplines, surveyed 42 of the largest bibliographic databases for major scholarly fields and publisher websites to identify retracted articles. The authors looked at 4,449 scholarly publications retracted from 1928 to 2011. The number of articles retracted per year increased from 2001 to 2010. Further, retraction of scientific papers due to alleged publishing misconduct such as plagiarism and author-initiated duplicate publication (47%) outnumbered those due to alleged research misconduct or data fabrication (20%) or questionable data/interpretations (42%). According to the study, most retracted articles did not contain flawed data, and the authors of most retracted articles have not been accused of research misconduct.

Another study published recently by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) found out that two-thirds of scientific journal retractions are because of some form of misconduct. This study involved 2,047 retractions of biomedical and life science research articles in PubMed from 1973 to May 3, 2012. Only 21.3% of retractions were attributable to error. In contrast, 67.4% of retractions were attributable to misconduct, including fraud or suspected fraud (43.4%), duplicate publication (14.2%), and plagiarism (9.8%).

One of the reasons behind the rise in retractions could be that publishers have started using software to detect plagiarism and duplicate publication since the year 2005. Hence, cases that were difficult to detect earlier are now being identified increasingly. Moreover, since journal publications are considered the basis of a scientist’s potential and success, and since grants are provided based on the publication history of a researcher, scientists are in a frenzy to publish more and publish fast. Thus, they may become inclined to indulge in misconduct or may not take the time to verify that all aspects of their research and manuscript comply with ethical guidelines.

Most journals do not provide clear reasons for retracting papers for fear of losing their reputation. As a result, retractions are not well understood and studied. To tackle this problem, Ivan Oransky, a New York-based journalist and co-founder of the blog Retraction Watch, suggests setting up a ‘transparency index’ for journals, to rank them on criteria such as the clarity of their retraction notices. Such an index would help people understand why some papers failed.

Retraction of scientific papers are a hot topic in the publishing industry, and even the most reputed journals such as Science and Nature have had to retract articles. But a rise in retractions may not necessarily mean that fraud is also increasing. Arturo Casadevall, a microbiologist at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City and editor of the journal mBio, says, “The fact that we went from zero retractions to 0.01 percent in a few decades is just an encouraging symptom of growing awareness of the problem.”

What is your opinion on the rising retraction rate? Would you support having a transparency index? 

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