October 12, 2011


Science publishing: The trouble with retractions: A surge in withdrawn papers is highlighting weaknesses in the system for handling them. (Richard Van Noorden, 10/05/11, Nature)

The reasons behind the rise in retractions are still unclear. "I don't think that there is suddenly a boom in the production of fraudulent or erroneous work," says John Ioannidis, a professor of health policy at Stanford University School of Medicine in California, who has spent much of his career tracking how medical science produces flawed results.

In surveys, around 1-2% of scientists admit to having fabricated, falsified or modified data or results at least once (D. Fanelli PLoS ONE 4, e5738; 2009). But over the past decade, retraction notices for published papers have increased from 0.001% of the total to only about 0.02%. And, Ioannidis says, that subset of papers is "the tip of the iceberg" -- too small and fragmentary for any useful conclusions to be drawn about the overall rates of sloppiness or misconduct.

Instead, it is more probable that the growth in retractions has come from an increased awareness of research misconduct, says Steneck. That's thanks in part to the setting up of regulatory bodies such as the US Office of Research Integrity in the Department of Health and Human Services. These ensure greater accountability for the research institutions, which, along with researchers, are responsible for detecting mistakes.

The growth also owes a lot to the emergence of software for easily detecting plagiarism and image manipulation, combined with the greater number of readers that the Internet brings to research papers. In the future, wider use of such software could cause the rate of retraction notices to dip as fast as it spiked, simply because more of the problematic papers will be screened out before they reach publication. On the other hand, editors' newfound comfort with talking about retraction may lead to notices coming at an even greater rate.

"Norms are changing all the time," says Steven Shafer, editor-in-chief of the journal Anesthesia & Analgesia, who has participated in two major misconduct investigations -- one of which involved 11 journals and led to the retraction of some 90 papers.

But willingness to talk about retractions is hardly universal. "There are a lot of publishers and a lot of journal editors who really don't want people to know about what's going on at their publications," says New York City-based writer Ivan Oransky, executive editor at Reuters Health. In August 2010, Oransky co-founded the blog Retraction Watch with Adam Marcus, managing editor at Anesthesiology News. Since its launch, Oransky says, the site has logged 1.1 million page views and has covered more than 200 retractions.

In one memorable post, the reporters describe ringing up one editor, L. Henry Edmunds at the Annals of Thoracic Surgery, to ask about a paper withdrawn from his journal (see go.nature.com/ubv261). "It's none of your damn business!" he told them. Edmunds did not respond to Nature 's request to talk for this article.

Posted by at October 12, 2011 7:22 AM

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