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Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Three papers by German management prof retracted for duplication, statistical issues

with 25 comments

Ulrich Lichtenthaler, a management professor in Germany, has had three papers retracted by two different journals, after readers noticed statistical irregularities.

Lichtenthaler was at the WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management when he published the papers in 2009 and 2010. He is now at the University of Mannheim. The retraction in Strategic Organization was first reported by the Strategy Profs blog. It reads:

The article ‘Technology licensing strategies: the interaction of process and content characteristics’ by Ulrich Lichtenthaler and Holger Ernst, published in STRATEGIC ORGANIZATION Vol 7(2): 183–221, DOI: 10.1177/1476127009102672, has been retracted at the author’s and editors’ request due to errors in reporting, for which the first author has claimed responsibility.

The paper has been cited 12 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge. In a comment on the Strategy Profs blog, journal editor Russ Coff added some detail (we confirmed with Coff that he had left the comment):

The author approached us and asked that we retract the paper. Further investigation confirmed specific irregularities as well as a broader pattern. For example, in some cases where the coefficients and standard errors are about the same size, variables are reported as highly significant, This problem is more evident for independent variables than control variables. It is clear that the findings should not be cited in subsequent research. This is only one of the issues raised and it appears to be part of a pattern across a number of articles published in a variety of well-respected journals. The first author wants to make it clear that he approached us proactively and that he claims responsibility…

The notice for the other two papers is wonderfully detailed, which is perhaps not surprising given that the journal, Research Policy, also recently published an illuminating paper on the role of retractions. Here’s the notice in full:

This article has been retracted: please see Elsevier Policy on Article Withdrawal (http://www.elsevier.com/locate/withdrawalpolicy).

This article has been retracted at the request of the Editors-in-Chief.

After discussions with the author about concerns raised by readers concerning the papers he published in Research Policy in 2009 and 2010, the Research Policy Editors have decided that the following two papers should be retracted:

Ulrich Lichtenthaler, The role of corporate technology strategy and patent portfolios in low-, medium- and high-technology firms, Res. Policy, 38 (2009) 559–569, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.respol.2008.10.009;

Ulrich Lichtenthaler, Determinants of proactive and reactive technology licensing: A contingency perspective, Res. Policy, 39 (2010) 55–66, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.respol.2009.11.011.

There are two main grounds for this retraction:

(1) In each case, the author failed to disclose (through specific citations, or through a mention in the ‘acknowledgements’ section, or in a covering letter to the Editor) the existence of other closely related papers by the same author. In the absence of this information, the referees and editors involved in handling these two Research Policy papers were misled as to the level of originality of each Research Policy paper. If they had been aware of those parallel papers, they would almost certainly have concluded that each of the two papers in question did not represent a sufficiently substantial and original contribution to knowledge in its own right to merit publication in a leading journal like Research Policy.

(2) In the Research Policy papers and the other closely related papers, the author has been inconsistent in his treatment of the variables. In particular, variables treated as important in the 2009 Research Policy paper are disregarded in another parallel paper (in R&D Management 2009), and vice versa. In the case of the 2010 Research Policy paper, when it is examined in conjunction with three other closely related papers (in Journal of Product Innovation Management 2009, Strategic Organization 2009, and Organization Science 2010), there seems to be an omitted variable bias problem that would invalidate the conclusions of the Research Policy 2010 paper. In both cases, this raises severe doubts as to the validity and robustness of the conclusions drawn in the two Research Policy papers (and indeed in the other parallel papers). If the referees and editors involved in handling the two Research Policy papers had been aware of this (i.e., if their attention had been drawn to the other closely related papers and they had spotted this inconsistency), they would undoubtedly have rejected each of the Research Policy papers on methodological grounds.

After the Research Policy Editors had made their decision to retract the two papers (but before he had been notified of the outcome), the author wrote to acknowledge a third problem with the Research Policy 2009 paper, namely that the statistical significance of several of the findings had been misreported or exaggerated. In the light of this new problem, the author asked to withdraw the Research Policy 2009 paper. However, by then the editorial decision to retract that paper on the original two grounds listed above had already been taken.

The 2010 paper has been cited four times, while the 2009 one has been cited six.

We’ve asked Lichtenthaler and his former institution, for comment, particularly about whether there was an investigation. We’ll update with anything we learn.

Update, 1 p.m.: WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management tells us they’re investigating:

We are aware of the retractions. When the underlying problems of the publications of Ulrich Lichtenthaler were brought to our attention WHU decided to establish an investigation committee with external experts to look into these matters. As WHU condemns all forms of academic misconduct, we are very interested in complete transparency on the issues and, depending on the findings of the committee, we will then take appropriate actions.

We also came across this profile of Lichtenthaler in Handelsblatt (German), which suggests he had a meteoric rise in academic circles.

Update, 10:30 a.m. Eastern, 7/18/12: Lichtenthaler’s current institution, the University of Mannheim, is also investigating the matter. In response to an email sent to the address on Lichtenthaler’s faculty page, Eva Bomrich, Lichtenthaler’s secretaryof the business school, tells us:

Prof. Dr. Lichtenthaler proactively informed in detail the President of the University of Mannheim already weeks ago about the unintended errors in some of his articles.

Following its guidelines, the University of Mannheim has started an investigation into alleged problems with the scientific articles of Professor Lichtenthaler. The investigation will take some time, and the University of Mannheim will provide further information in due course.

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25 Responses

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  1. “If they had been aware of those parallel papers, they would almost certainly have concluded that each of the two papers in question did not represent a sufficiently substantial and original contribution to knowledge in its own right to merit publication in a leading journal like Research Policy.”

    Something does not square here. It is acknowledged that even experts in the field did not know about the parallel papers, meaning that they did not know about the specific findings before they read this particular paper. So, this paper obviously was reaching a different audience than the other two papers. In so doing, there is a benefit in having this additional paper, as additional people got to learn about the results. The notion that every paper has to have an “original” contribution is preposterous. A legitimate goal of some papers is to spread a certain idea to audiences that might not have read about it otherwise.

    Jon Beckmann

    July 17, 2012 at 5:55 pm

    • I recognize that there are different audiences and tat is a fair issue to raise.

      However, there is strong overlap between these top management journals — the audience is not that different. Variables were created using the same survey items but given different names. Since the other papers were not cited, reviewers were not alerted that they should be comparing them. As such, it was not a simple matter to identify that the findings had already been published elsewhere.

      RussCoff

      July 17, 2012 at 8:43 pm

      • The reviewers, who of course were competent and knowledgeable experts in the field, were unaware that similar papers by the same author had been previously published in “top management journals” that have pretty much the same audience? The variables must have been named something radically different to have slipped past such careful reviewers. ;-)

        JudyH

        July 17, 2012 at 9:46 pm

      • @JudyH: Ah, so now it’s the reviewers fault that the author committed scientific misconduct? An author, who himself contacted at least one of the journals asking for retraction of his article…

        Sebastian

        July 18, 2012 at 4:11 am

      • Perhaps you misunderstood my comment, Sebastian. It is the reviewers’ fault that they didn’t notice the paper was a retread. Reviewers are supposed to keep current with the literature in their field. Readers were “raising concerns” with the journal about various aspects of these “closely related” papers, so somebody was able to make the connection. Why couldn’t the reviewers have made the connection and recommended that space in the journal be given to a more worthy manuscript?

        JudyH

        July 18, 2012 at 9:16 am

      • Reviewers can be fallible.

        So it is not the reviewers ‘fault’. Yes, in a perfect world they should have made the connection, unfortunately they didn’t. Yes, there is an urgent need to improve the review process. No, just blaming the reviewers is not the solution.

        SF

        July 18, 2012 at 10:01 am

    • Transparency is key. And as far as I know, self-plagiarism still isn’t allowed…

      And yes, I know the problems with self citation, but hiding your own work is not the solution either ;)

      SF

      July 18, 2012 at 2:32 am

      • “self-plagiarism” does not go down well with publishers because it makes things complicated for them. That is the source of the discussion about “self-plagiarism”. Why should well-paid researchers have to waste their time finding new words and rewriting introductions and methods for stuff they have already written? Papers are building blocks, blocks should be reused whenever possible. It is the most efficient way.

        Jon Beckmann

        July 18, 2012 at 2:42 pm

    • “The notion that every paper has to have an “original” contribution is preposterous.”

      It certainly is not “preposterous” to expect of an original article to present original contributions. If the author had wanted to spread his ideas to a broader audience, a review article could have been an appropriate method.

      Sebastian

      July 18, 2012 at 4:09 am

      • Narrow “reviews” of an author’s own work is another form of copying, “showcasing”.

        Fernando Pessoa

        July 18, 2012 at 4:59 am

    • The blog “http://economicsintelligence.com” provides further background information and some context to the Lichtenthaler case: http://economicsintelligence.com/2012/07/19/top-flight-german-business-prof-faces-severe-accusations-of-academic-misconduct/

      Greetings from Germany

      July 19, 2012 at 4:17 am

  2. http://www.icmje.org/publishing_4overlap.html

    See section: Acceptable Secondary Publication

    It does allow for secondary publication for “a different group of readers”.

    3. The paper for secondary publication is intended for a different group of readers; an abbreviated version could be sufficient.

    Managers seem like the same group of readers to me.

    Authors do need to pay attention to:

    5. The footnote on the title page of the secondary version informs readers, peers, and documenting agencies that the paper has been published in whole or in part and states the primary reference. A suitable footnote might read: “This article is based on a study first reported in the [title of journal, with full reference].”

    6. The title of the secondary publication should indicate that it is a secondary publication (complete republication, abridged republication, complete translation, or abridged translation) of a primary publication.

    Fernando Pessoa

    July 18, 2012 at 4:01 am

    • OKAY, but who elected people on the icmje? What conflict of interest do these people have? Unclear. Therefore, taking what they say uncritically makes little sense…

      Jon Beckmann

      July 18, 2012 at 2:44 pm

      • In reply to Jon Beckmann July 18, 2012 at 2:44 pm

        A current example from the Biophysical Journal:

        http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0006349512007229

        Open the retraction notice:

        Retraction
        Biophysical Journal, Volume 103, Issue 2, 18 July 2012, Page 374

        PDF (24 K)

        ——————————————————————————–

        This article has been retracted: please see Elsevier Policy on Article Withdrawal (http://www.elsevier.com/locate/withdrawalpolicy).

        This article has been retracted at the request of the Editor-in-Chief.

        The editors have noted that there is a substantial overlap of text and content between this Biophysical Journal article and the following article: Wang, J., Huang, B., Xia, X., and Sun, Z., Funneled landscape leads to robustness of cell networks: yeast cell cycle. PLoS Comput. Biol., 2 (2006) e147, http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pcbi.0020147.

        The submission of this paper was inconsistent with Biophysical Journal policy, which states: “Manuscripts submitted to Biophysical Journal (BJ) must be original; papers that have already been published or are concurrently submitted elsewhere for publication are not acceptable for submission. This includes manuscripts previously submitted to BJ, as well as material that has been submitted to other journals while BJ is considering the manuscript. If some part of the work has appeared or will appear elsewhere, the authors must give the specific details of such appearances in the cover letter accompanying the BJ submission. If previously published illustrative material, such as figures or tables, must be included, the authors are responsible for obtaining the appropriate permissions from the publisher(s) before the material may be published in BJ.”

        We are therefore retracting the publication of the Biophysical Journal article.

        Clare Francis

        July 19, 2012 at 5:28 am

  3. Self-plagiarism, badly-read reviewers, statistics as alibi: publication race as usual… until what?

    Oli

    July 18, 2012 at 10:25 am

    • Readers point out what is amiss. According to COPE that’s all it takes to get the editors to take a second look.

      Fernando Pessoa

      July 18, 2012 at 12:48 pm

  4. If it wasn’t a blind review process, I might have higher expectations that reviewers would catch publications using the same data that were not cited. Otherwise, there are a lot of journals and I think it is unreasonable to expect reviewers to be familiar with every paper.

    RussCoff

    July 18, 2012 at 12:28 pm

    • Our own papers are part of a large multi-wave research project. If you go in a blind review process than it is really difficult – how to tell the reviewers about the already existing papers without being detected!? (ok, we inform the editor in the cover letter, but the reviews are still blind)

      TBima

      July 19, 2012 at 7:03 am

  5. But honestly, did any of you have a look at the tables of his last SMJ? The numbers are completely screwed up. I mean, same problems of the RPs and SO piece. That piece needs to be retracted on similar grounds.

    Simon

    July 20, 2012 at 2:06 am

  6. His July article in the Journal of Product Innovation Management and his forthcoming article in Entrepreneurship: Theory & Practice suffer from similar symptoms. Once in a while coefficients, standard errors, and reported levels of significance do not match up. Looks like a similar pattern there as well. Curious to see how that will unfold.

    Management Scholar

    August 22, 2012 at 4:38 am

    • Perhaps everyone is not familiar of the murkiness of this case. In most cases he is basically using the data he collected to his PhD thesis. He takes one variable and calls it X (name of construct) in one paper and then Y (name of a completely different construct) in another. So same data becomes two entirely different variables. Further, in one paper he reports that Z is a significant influence on W, yet in another paper examining influences on W he ignores Z completely — as if it didn’t matter.

      Then, if his findings are not statistically significant, he falsely reports that they were. Luckily, he was sloppy (or ignorant) enough not to falsify the standard errors, which gave away his cheating.

      This goes far beyond self-plagiarism. This guy just makes up the numbers as he goes.

      One has to admire his creativity though — it is very difficult to push papers through to outlets such as AMJ or SMJ even if your data were flawless. Making a convincing verbal argument for a gap in theory and elaborating associated contribution is difficult.

      entrepreneurship and innovation scholar

      August 24, 2012 at 9:12 am

  7. Die someone else notice, that Ernst withdraws being co-author from papers already being published as online-first:

    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1540-5885.2012.00957.x/abstract

    Roll

    August 28, 2012 at 3:26 am

  8. Did someone else notice, that Ernst withdraws being co-author from papers already being published as online-first and thereby leaves Lichtenthaler alone:

    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1540-5885.2012.00957.x/abstract

    http://www.whu.edu/forschung/forschung-an-der-whu/publikationen/

    Also mysterious:
    The WHU publication page lists two more articels within Journal of Product Innovation Management as forthcoming. But they do not apear online anymore. It seams that two more papers got retracted…

    Lichtenthaler, U., Ernst, H., Hoyer, W.: Determinants of Absorptive Capacity: The Value of Technology and Market Orientation for Open Innovation, Journal of Product Innovation Management (forthcoming)

    Lichtenthaler, U., Ernst, H., Lichtenthaler, E. Desorptive Capacity: A Capability-Based Perspective on Commercializing Knowledge Assets, Journal of Product Innovation Management (forthcoming)

    Roll

    August 28, 2012 at 4:08 am


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