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Friday, 27 March 2015

Retractions of scientific publications: responsibility and accountability | Biochemia Medica


Research integrity corner:
Vedran Katavić. Retractions of scientific publications: responsibility and accountability. Biochemia Medica 2014;24(2):217-22.
Department of Anatomy, University of Zagreb School of Medicine, Zagreb, Croatia
Corresponding author:
This evidence-based opinion piece gives
a short overview of the increase in retractions of publications in
scientific journals and discusses various reasons for that increase.
Also discussed are some of the recent prominent cases of scientific
misconduct, the number of authors with multiple retractions, and
problems with reproducibility of published research. Finally, some of
the effects of faulty research on science and society, as well as
possible solutions are discussed.
Key words: accountability; retraction of publication as topic; scientific misconduct
Received: March 30, 2014            
   Accepted: May 19, 2014


I‘d like to start this opinion piece
with a disclaimer – I am going to do something not entirely common in a
scientific journal, and NOT cite those articles I mention in this
manuscript! That is, I will not disclose the titles nor cite the
articles that have been retracted or are being investigated for possible
fraud. I however, may mention the journals that published them or key
name(s) from the byline in the text. The reason behind this endeavour
(beside the fact that there are so many of these articles) is simple,
albeit verbose – the retracted articles do not die, but rather receive
citations years and decades after their retraction (1,2), often by the
authors themselves (3), the web-pages where the articles are presented
are accessible directly from the journals they were supposedly retracted
from or indirectly from non-publisher sources (4). The extended life of
citations happens in spite of the journal editors’ best efforts, or
even maybe even because of them, if their efforts to explain the
retraction are vague or inconsistent (5). So, in order to stop promoting
possible citations of retracted or soon-to-be-retracted articles, allow
me not to cite them.

Corrections and retractions in scientific journals

Corrections and retractions are an
integral part of scientific publication because they constitute what can
be described as the scientific method and ethical publishing – the
burden of evidence dictates that what was thought to be right, or what
was purported to be right has to yield to what is evidently right, and,
hence, needs to be corrected in the public domain’s record keeping. Most
of the burden of keeping the record straight eventually falls onto the
journal editors’ backs (6), and, although the editors are not the
scientific community’s policemen (7), they have responsibilities and
roles, as well as tools at their disposal. These are best defined by the
Council of Editors’ White paper on Publication ethics (8), which notes
that editors can correct the public record by publishing either
corrections (errata or corrigenda), which “identify a
correction to a small, isolated portion of an otherwise reliable
article” or retractions, that “refer to an article in its entirety that
is the result of pervasive error, nonreproducible research, scientific
misconduct, or duplicate publication”. Within an editor’s toolbox are,
also, expressions of concern that draw the attention of the public to
possible problems in a published article, without, actually, correcting
or retracting it (8). Once published, these corrections, retractions,
and expressions of concern become “notices”.
The total number of these notices in
recent years (9), mostly as a result of increased rates of retraction
(10), has made us acutely aware of the retraction epidemic. How many
retractions? Some thirty plus years ago, there were very few retractions
– on the order of 1 or 2 retractions per year. In the 1990ies, the number rose to approximately 1 or 2 a month (i.e. 10-20 per year). By the late 2000s it rose to 1 a day (around 300 per year), and in the last couple of years it has risen to approximately 2 retractions every 3 days or around 500 per
year (9,11,12). While the frequency of corrections has been constant
throughout the various scientific fields (11), the frequency of
retracted publications has dramatically increased even after correcting
for the increase in total scientific publication output (9), while at
the same time the “time-to-retraction” has significantly decreased (13).
A possible explanation of this trend may be an increased awareness of
editors of these issues and their (increased) willingness to retract
rather than (significantly) correct a manuscript. Whether the reasons
for most retractions are fraudulent results begotten of research
misconduct (9,14), or not (15), and whether there is an increase in
plagiarism and duplicate publications (16) still needs to be
ascertained, but the evidence-based understanding of the problem may be
skewed by the journals’ retraction practices and the (ambiguous) wording
of the retractions (5).
One can argue that most retractions
happen because of the comments from interested readers (the scientific
community), aptly called by Cokol et al. the “post-publication
scrutiny” (17). Following their algorithms, it is obvious that journals
with a higher impact factor (IF) have a bigger and more scrutinizing
readership than the journals with a lower IF. It is appealing to call
this post-publication scrutiny “self-correction” of biomedicine (16),
but also somewhat misleading, as it is indeed biomedicine that is doing
the corrections, and not necessarily the authors who transgressed.There
are of course other, more sinister, explanations for the increase in
retractions, such as the possibility that the number of authors ready to
commit scientific misconduct or abuse publication ethics is on the
rise. It just as well may be that the overall decay of the moral fabric
of society in general is mirrored in the retractions. Those explanations
are, however, difficult to confirm, as there is preciously little
research on the topics, and the research that does exist is skewed by
the existence of researchers with multiple retractions (15), and
(under?)reported rates of misconduct (18,19). Unfortunately, the
depressing take home message is, also, that it is safe to assume that
the fraudulent research far outweighs the research that is retracted

The stigma of correction and retraction

Every correction and retraction is a
source of embarrassment for all involved – the author(s), the journal,
the editors and the reviewers. Ideally, a correction is minor and the
journal is prompted to correct by the author(s) who published the
original result (usually because the building upon those results was
unsuccessful). Less ideally, the author(s) recognize there was a serious
mix-up (unintentional, hopefully), and the results “really” do not add
up. Then, however difficult and stressful it may be, all the authors
should contact the editors and ask for a retraction disclosing
everything that went wrong. Did I say disclosing everything? Yes. Total
transparency is key to maintaining face and credibility. From this,
“less ideal” scenario, there are many ways the situation can get worse.
Worst case scenario? An external “force” (the post-publication
scrutinizer) complains to the editors and the public about the veracity
of the data published, the authors refuse to take responsibility, make
all kinds of unsupported claims defying the overwhelming facts, fight
the accusations by lashing blindly at everyone with all they’ve got.
Nevertheless, the retraction still happens, and the authors are left
marred by the experience for the remainder of their fizzling career.

Authors with multiple retractions

The surprising thing in the analyses of
retracted publications is the number of researchers with multiple
retracted publications and the number of retracted publications (or
publications found to be fraudulent that are awaiting retraction) they
published (15). Some of these “authors” are presented in Table 1. With a
few exceptions, most of them refused to take responsibility for their
actions and failed to acquiesce to what they had done. This list is,
unfortunately, far from complete, and would have been quite difficult to
assemble were it not for the efforts of the bloggers at Retraction
Watch (12), an on-line community of researchers frustrated with the
science’s (not the journal!) inability to timely, publicly, and
efficiently self-correct.
Table 1. Some authors with multiple retractions from the last decade.

Journals of “choice”

While the (high) number of retracted
publications (both total and per “retractor” or maybe better
“retractee”) may be shocking, it is interesting to note that many of the
“authors” consistently make high impact, high visibility, (and high
risk) career/publication choices. It may seem that the journals with a
high IF attract a disproportionate number of research publications that
end up retracted. The exact understanding as to why and the algorithmic
predictive modelling differs between researchers (17,20). I surmise
that, apparently, the fraudsters (having already performed misconduct in
their research) go “all in”, and (try to) publish in journals most
likely to afford them, however short-lived, international prestige and
visibility [or as the fraudsters might erroneously think – fame,
fortune, and love of (wo)men].
As is often the case, one learns best
from one’s own experience, so it wasn’t until the “efforts” of Naoki
Mori to publish his research articles in Infection and Immunity
(6 of which were published and retracted in a single year), and the
ensuing self-scrutiny of standard editorial operating procedures and
beliefs, that the editors of Infection and Immunity and mBio
coined the term “retraction index” (21). This index represents the
number of retractions, multiplied by 1,000 divided by the number of
published articles with abstracts in the same time-span of 10 years. To
put a mathematical spin on the retraction index, it may be represented
where R10 is the number of retracted
articles, and PA10 the number of articles with abstracts published in 10
years. What the “freshly-burned-by-a-scandal” introspective editors
also found was a correlation between a journal’s IF and its retraction
index, which stated that the higher the IF of a journal, the higher the
probability of a retraction. This, again, takes us back to the high
visibility of journals with high IFs and a scrutinizing readership. So
it seems this circle is not so vicious, as the higher the IF of the
journal that unknowingly published fraudulent research, the greater the
post-publication scrutiny, and the greater the chance of retraction and
self-correction! OK! We are done here and you may, now, stop reading
this article and feel safe that all is well in the world of scientific

(Ir)reproducibility of published research

Out of all the reasons for retractions
(9), irreproducibility of results inhabits its own troubling niche.
Reproducibility or replicability of experiments is the core tenet of the
scientific method. It is the reason why scientists obsessively write
(and read) the Materials & Methods (M&M) sections of research
articles. M&M need to be clear enough, and strike the right balance
between length, detail, and brevity to allow repetition and validation
of the study (22). Providing adequate citing is used, the verbatim
transcription and reuse of portions of already published portions of
M&M has its own shady grove out of the piercing view of the
all-seeing glare of the plagiarism detecting software, and need not,
necessarily, be considered plagiarism (23). A true mouthful, just to be
able to justify re-usage of highly technical and formulaic portions of
text which may lose consistency and validity when paraphrased (24).
Still, sometimes, in spite of making the exact specifications and
circumstances of one’s experiment public, other researchers fail to
reproduce or replicate the published results. To test/confirm published
results a group of researchers tried to replicate the results from 53
published “landmark” studies in biomedicine, and managed to confirm only
11% (25). Maybe I should put this differently. This group of
researchers failed to confirm the results of 89% of 53 “landmark”
studies published in biomedicine! This study, and others like it have
led some researchers to doubt the veracity (of most) of the published
research (26,27), and to organize into a “Reproducibility Initiative”
(28), so they could, as it says on their web site, “identify and reward
high quality reproducible research”. The idea is, also, backed by
scientific journals (29) that wish to reinforce the trust in their work
as well as educate the (scientific) public that just because something
was published, does not make it final or true (30).

The impact of retractions – public (dis)trust?

Now that I have said all this, some
questions remain – How important is any of this? Does it matter what
happens to published articles and whether they are corrected or
retracted? Who cares? Does it have real-life implications other than the
embarrassment for the perpetrators? To answer the questions – yes; yes;
the public/the funding agencies; and oh yes! (Now comes the part that I
put the disclaimer at the beginning for).
The scientific endeavour, as I have
tried to show, is far from perfect. Even when done with a clear head and
of pure heart, the interpretation of data is often flawed and
influenced by controllable as well as uncontrollable biases and
confounding factors. The presentation of those data through the
publication process adds another layer of possible bias. One need only
to think of conflicting publications and interpretations of those
publications about such topics as high blood pressure, effects of
cholesterol in the diet on our health (eggs – is it OK to eat them now,
or isn’t it?), GMOs, and climate change!? Or vaccination? A topic which
touches upon most of the world (developed and developing) – with rising
numbers of (very vocal) opponents to vaccination. Some of the groups
that harboured distrust towards mainstream medicine and vaccination
landed a victory when Andrew Wakefield (and 12 co-authors) published
their “study” linking autism and MMR vaccination in The Lancet in 1998.
That study, with the help of its author gained purchase and managed to
push the vaccination scare to unprecedented levels (and the extent of
unvaccinated children to highs not seen in the modern world since the
introduction of vaccination). In the 12 years it had taken the journal
to (fully) retract (31) this article (if was partially retracted in
2004), the study had been cited over 750 times, and (ab)used to further
various, in hindsight, nefarious plots. Although the scientific record
has “self-corrected”, untold hours and funds have been spent in useless
endeavours to either confirm or debunk these claims.
Cases like this abound. To illustrate,
please allow me to use one last example. Just this year, on January 30,
2014 the scientific journal Nature published 2 papers by Haruko Obokata et al.
detailing reprogramming of somatic into stem cells by an acidic bath.
The journal’s article metrics allow for some understanding of the impact
these articles have attracted so far, before their inevitable
retraction (at the time of writing this opinion piece, both papers are
under investigation for fraud). Within approximately 50 days of
publication, these two articles (taken together) have been tweeted about
over 3300 times, appeared on more than 100 Facebook pages, picked up by
130 news outlets, cited a total of 30 times (which puts them above the
90th percentile of tracked articles of similar age across journals or in
Nature), blogged about on at least 50 scientific blogs, and
their web pages at the source through the journal platform
have been viewed (HTML views and PDF downloads) more than 1,300.000
times total! I think these pie­ces of information allow us to qualify
this as


The solution?

Most of the cases of discovered fraud
beg questions like – Why hasn’t this been discovered sooner? How did
such drivel pass rigorous peer-review? Is science broken? Is the
publication process broken? Whom do we trust?
Although, overall, the problem of
retractions and fraudulent research represents a fraction of a fraction
of all published research, subjectively it seems like the elephant in
the room that may not be ignored. The challenge of maintaining (or
regaining) trust of the public is real, and the authors, the editors,
the publishers of scientific journals, and the interested public
(including the funding agencies) with a vested interest should have a
better understanding of the possible problems and possible solutions
(32). To achieve that, we need data. To get the data we need research.
To continue having the privilege to perform and publish research we need
to be responsible and accountable.
Potential conflict of interest
None declared.
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Retractions of scientific publications: responsibility and accountability | Biochemia Medica

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