One of the issues that comes up again and again on Retraction Watch is when it’s appropriate to retract a paper. There are varying opinions. Some commenters have suggested, given the stigma attached, retraction should be reserved for fraud, while many more say error — even unintentional — is enough to merit withdrawal. Some others, however, say retraction is appropriate when a paper is later proven wrong, even in the absence of misconduct or mistakes.
Today, apparently prompted by a retraction that fits into that last category and was, by some accounts, a surprise to the paper’s authors, Public Library of Science (PLoS) medicine editorial director Virginia Barbour and PLoS Pathogens editor-in-chief Kasturi Haldar take the issue head-on. Barbour — who is also chair of the Committee on Publication Ethics, which of course has retraction guidelines — and Haldar write:
We firmly believe that acceleration also requires being open about correcting the literature as needed so that research can be built on a solid foundation. Hence as editors and as a publisher we encourage the publication of studies that replicate or refute work we have previously published. We work with authors (through communication with the corresponding author) to publish corrections if we find parts of articles to be inaccurate. If a paper’s major conclusions are shown to be wrong we will retract the paper. By doing so, and by being open about our motives, we hope to clarify once and for all that there is no shame in correcting the literature. Despite the best of efforts, errors occur and their timely and effective remedy should be considered the mark of responsible authors, editors and publishers.
There’s a lot we applaud in this editorial, particularly that “there is no shame in correcting the literature.” We suspect that the “[i]f a paper’s major conclusions are shown to be wrong we will retract the paper” will be more controversial. We’d urge you to read the entire editorial, and of course let us know what you think.