Update on Journal of Neuroscience retractions: Authors being investigated. Plus, editor explains why notices say nothing
We have updates on the two mysterious Journal of Neuroscience retractions we reported on yesterday. One is that we have learned that there is a university investigation into the work of one of the teams that retracted one of the studies. More on that in a bit.
Two, the journal’s editor, John Maunsell, responded to our request for comment, and we’re quoting his entire email (with annotation) because we think it raises important issues:
Thank you for your question regarding our recent retractions. It is the policy of The Journal of Neuroscience to retract an article at the authors’ request at any time without requiring explanation. Our primary motivation is to minimize the barriers to retraction. We believe that authors are generally reluctant to retract articles, and we do not want to impose any requirements that could discourage authors from removing flawed articles from the literature.
We applaud any effort to minimize barriers to retraction. Where we seem to differ, as will become clear, is on how to lower those barriers while still serving science and transparency.
For the same reason, we do not publish descriptions of problems in a retracted article. Because retraction removes an article from the literature, eliminating it as a citable authority, describing which parts are or are not valid would be academic. There is no part of the retracted article that can be considered a valid, peer-reviewed observation. Scientists who have done research based on retracted observations would be better served by contacting the authors directly for complete details than relying on a brief published description of the most salient issues. By not identifying specific problems we also avoid the contentious and difficult practice of assigning blame for errors to particular laboratories or authors, which can also discourage retractions.
This has a certain logic, but we strongly disagree that scientists should be forced to take the extra step of contacting authors for complete details. Based on our experience, many of those authors are not forthcoming. And even if they were, isn’t it still better to make sure the scientific record is as complete and up-to-date as possible?
As far as the fact that assigning blame is “contentious and difficult,” we’re just not sympathetic. Most things worth doing are difficult. By shying away from reporting what actually happened, journals are encouraging misconduct, as we’ve argued before — and giving us far less reason to trust what’s in their pages.
We follow the guidance from the Committee on Publication Ethics (http://www.publicationethics.org/resources/guidelines) and distinguish misconduct from honest errors. Retractions made at the request of the authors are simply that. Retractions based on findings of inappropriate conduct are clearly indicated in the published retraction.
This we found particularly curious. It’s not our interpretation of the COPE guidelines, which clearly say that retraction notices should state
the reason(s) for the retraction (to distinguish misconduct from honest error).
It appears that the Journal of Neuroscience thinks this means that “this article was withdrawn at the request of the authors” is enough reason.
Again, we disagree. For one, authors can certainly retract because of misconduct. And as we’ve noted above, while we applaud anything that is an attempt to remove barriers from retraction, we fail to see how an uninformative notice fosters transparency or helps science. Perhaps COPE can weigh in here, by leaving a comment.
In one of these very cases, in fact, we have learned that there appears to be a university investigation into the work of one of the co-authors, Kenji Okajima, according to a report in Sankei Shimbun. The newspaper does not mention Okajima by name, but gives details about his age, area of research, and positions that make it clear it is him and a colleague whose work is being examined. Both of those authors are on the paper retracted this week.
That investigation seems to have been sparked by questions on this site, which does mention both authors’ names. (Both of those links are in Japanese, and we had help from a Retraction Watch reader in translating them.)
Okajima — who has also apparently studied the effects of wasabi and pepper on growing hair — has not responded to our requests for comment. We should also make clear that we have not learned anything at all about the reasons for the other retraction, as the lead author has not responded to us.
Back to Maunsell’s email:
In this regard I would like to point out that your web site, Retraction Watch, may be doing science a disservice by failing to emphasize that retractions fall into two very different categories: those initiated by authors to remove articles containing errors, and those initiated based on an investigation that finds fabrication, falsification, plagiarism or other unethical behavior. In searching your web site I could find no material that lays out this distinction for visitors. I worry that scientists visiting your site will be led to believe that all retractions arise from misconduct, which is far from the truth. By failing to make clear that retraction is an important mechanism for correcting honest mistakes, your site may imply to scientists that they must avoid retractions at all costs. You might greatly enhance and extend your site by providing your readers with general information about ethical behavior in scientific publication (there are many suitable links) and especially by emphasizing that there are different types of retractions.
This is a criticism that we have heard before, most recently last week from DrugMonkey, who posted a poll on what a retraction means in response to a Retraction Watch post asking what warrants a retraction. DrugMonkey’s feeling is that retractions should be reserved for fraud — an opinion with which we (and COPE, and many journals) respectfully disagree.
Still, as we wrote to Maunsell:
We appreciate all feedback and criticism, and we’ll take your suggestion to explore ethical issues in that vein. We should point out, however, that we routinely write about such issues. In our very first post, we note that fraud is the most rare reason for retraction.
With all due respect, we would say in return that it is opaque and frankly unhelpful retraction notices such as the two published this week in your journal that are doing science a disservice.
In other words, we believe the way to make science more transparent and self-correcting is to explain why a paper is being retracted. If lots of notices explain that there was no misconduct or fraud involved, retractions would be normalized, and we’d lower the barrier to them — which seems to be a common goal of ours and the Journal of Neuroscience. Others have suggested that perhaps corrections are warranted when fraud isn’t involved. We’d be happy to explore that, too.
But what we can’t understand is how uninformative retraction notices help anyone at all.