What is retraction?
Research papers go through a thorough check by peer reviewers before they reach publication. Despite this, at times, errors are detected in papers after they are published. If the errors are minor, such as an incorrect correspondence address or correction of an author’s name, an erratum notice can be issued. However, if the errors are grave enough to put the validity of the paper in question, it may need to be retracted. Retraction is a way of alerting readers to the questionable credibility of a study. It is a part of publication, and even reputed journals have had to retract papers. A recent instance of this is the retraction of two papers related to the STAP research by Nature. Authors should keep in mind that the aim of retraction is not to punish the authors for their mistakes but to correct the research data and to preserve the credibility of science.
Why are papers retracted?
Papers are retracted only when they have serious errors which cannot be corrected through an erratum notice or a letter of concern. According to the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), journal editors should consider retracting a paper if:
- they have clear evidence that the findings are unreliable, either as a result of misconduct (e.g. data fabrication) or honest error (e.g. miscalculation or experimental error)
- the findings have previously been published elsewhere without proper cross-referencing, permission or justification (i.e. cases of redundant publication)
- it constitutes plagiarism
- it reports unethical research
Sometimes, however, some journals do not provide clear reasons for retraction as they fear losing their reputation since readers may question their peer review process. 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 to prove the credibility of their research. However, the problem remains in cases where authors withdraw their paper for unknown reasons.
Who retracts a paper?
Although the final decision of retraction of a paper rests with the journal editor, either the author(s) or journal editor can issue a retraction. At times, a retraction is issued jointly by the author and editor. Editors may ask authors to retract a flawed paper, but if they refuse, editors may retract the paper themselves.
What happens when a journal editor decides to retract a paper?
Most often, journal editors are alerted to errors in research papers which they then investigate. If any incident of misconduct is discovered, a retraction notice is issued. According to COPE, the text of the retraction should explain why the article is being retracted and include a complete citation reference to that article. (An example of retraction notice can be found here.) Moreover, retracted articles should remain in the public domain and be clearly labeled as retracted. COPE also advises that a notice of retraction should:
- be linked to the retracted article wherever possible (i.e. in all electronic versions)
- clearly identify the retracted article (e.g. by including the title and authors in the retraction heading)
- be clearly identified as a retraction (i.e. distinct from other types of correction or comment)
- be published promptly to minimize harmful effects from misleading publications
- be freely available to all readers (i.e. not behind access barriers or available only to subscribers)
- state who is retracting the article
- state the reason(s) for retraction (to distinguish misconduct from honest error)
- avoid statements that are potentially defamatory or libelous
Retraction is a very widely discussed topic in the publication industry. The rate of retraction is rising, a trend that is attributed to the rat race to publish papers. While retraction is an inevitable aspect of science publication, authors should be aware of its implications and take necessary steps to avoid it.
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