A Retraction Watch retraction: Our 2013 advice on reporting misconduct turns out to have been wrong

2015_06_miniNearly three years ago, our co-founders Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus penned a column in Lab Times suggesting ways for readers to report alleged scientific misconduct. They are now retracting that advice.

In the retracted column, they suggested initially contacting the editor of the journal that published the potentially problematic work, and if the editor suggests it, contact the authors of that work. In their latest column for Lab Times, Oransky and Marcus say: Forget that advice. 

Three years later, after observing cover-ups, being berated by select lawyers and speaking to people intimately involved in misconduct investigations, we’ve realised that we were wrong. In keeping with some of the honest retraction notices we see, we offer apologies to the scientific community.

Here’s why: Contacting authors before anyone else knows about potential issues in their work, only serves to give unethical scientists time to hide their tracks – and let’s face it, those who are actually guilty of misconduct probably don’t have any scruples about covering up the evidence of that misconduct. That will make it much more difficult for universities and oversight agencies to investigate cases properly.

Instead of first approaching editors, they now recommend contacting the relevant people at the authors’ institution:

While we’d like to be able to say that we find all journal editors responsive to allegations, there are still too many who rebuff efforts to correct the literature, which means they aren’t ideal first ports of call either. That leaves the right answer: research integrity officers, or the equivalent, at the institutions where the authors in question work.

We realise that some would-be whistleblowers have little faith in institutional investigations and, where possible, outside organisations responsible for research oversight – say, the Office of Research Integrity, in the United States – are another option. Keep in mind, however, that many of these organisations are required to allow institutions to perform their own investigations first. There is, however, a paper trail, at least, and sometimes much more muscle than that.

They also add some other advice: Try PubPeer, a site where commenters can post anonymously about concerns related to published work.

It’s a proper retraction — go to the original article, and you’ll see it’s now marked clearly as “RETRACTED,” with a note directing readers to the latest column. Oransky and Marcus say they’re glad to have the opportunity to make the fix:

Whistleblowing and critiquing others’ work is, after all, complicated. We’re glad to have the chance to retract some of our previous advice and update it, as new evidence comes to light. That’s what self-correction is all about, right?

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20 thoughts on “A Retraction Watch retraction: Our 2013 advice on reporting misconduct turns out to have been wrong”

  1. I agree with the updated recommendations. However, contacting the “the relevant people at the authors’ institution” may not always be the best choice, particularly in certain cases in which, for example, the alleged misconduct is carried out by a powerful figure and the institution (and the country) lacks the proper framework with which to tackle these matters. See for example:


    Surely, there are many other examples.

  2. ORI seems to agree on this point. On at least one occasion, upon reporting allegations to their division of investigative oversight (DIO) I was informed that my prior publicity of the allegations online had given the respondent advanced warning, which led to problems for ORI in collecting evidence to bring a case.

  3. Some universities may not respect anonymous whistle-blower emails. Whistle-blowers’ future will also be in trouble! Agree with the cases mentioned by Miguel Roig above. Moreover, retraction watch seems to accept mostly papers which are retracted, pubpeer appears to be viable option now. RW realised that the earlier approach was not appropriate at the moment and retracted their opinion – setting an example how to do it.

  4. Paul Brookes
    ORI seems to agree on this point. On at least one occasion, upon reporting allegations to their division of investigative oversight (DIO) I was informed that my prior publicity of the allegations online had given the respondent advanced warning, which led to problems for ORI in collecting evidence to bring a case.

    What about the advice regarding PubPeer? I thought that anything posted there will launch an e-mail to the authors of the problematic paper so they are warned.

  5. [If you don’t use Flash anymore, the link needs to be http://www.labtimes-archiv.de/epaper/LT_15_06/files/assets/basic-html/page-37.html%5D
    I don’t agree with this “new” advice. How do I find that research integrity officer? University web sites are a disaster when you are looking for something you don’t know what they call it. And if the university speaks a language you don’t read, good luck on flushing out anyone who will even respond to an allegation. A colleague and I published an article earlier this year in German about the response of universities to documentations of plagiarisms in accepted dissertations [http://www.wissenschaftsmanagement-online.de/system/files/downloads-wimoarticle/1504_WIMO_Viel%20Licht%20und%20noch%20mehr%20Schatten_Dannemann_Weber-Wulff.pdf] As the title says, some light and lots of darkness. In many cases we even have to ask again after two weeks if they even got our emails.
    It’s a sorry state of affairs.

  6. I think research misconducts should be treated as a crime and be prosecuted by federal prosecutor. An government official abusing taxpayer’s money can be prosecuted. Why a cheating “scientist” abusing taxpayers’ money can not be prosecuted as a crime? The research integrity officers in research institutions is not independent, and they need get approval from provost, deans and … … in order to move forward for an inquiry or investigation because this involves the institution’s reputation and financial interest (grant money… …).

  7. Yes, Paul Brookes, my colleagues and I in OSI (started in 1989 at NIH) and in ORI (started in 1992 at PHS/HHS) have always told whistleblowers to go to the university vice president for research, provost or relevant medical schold dean — or specifically to the Research Integrity Officer (RIO) when such a person is named — or to come to ORI for advice in who the RIO is at a university, or to have ORI consider forwarding to it the allegation by the whistleblower.

    It has always been dangerous to inform the respondent whom one is accusing of misconduct, since they have the opportunity to destroy or alter evidence of the misconduct before the RIO can sequester the evidence and do a proper inquiry or investigation of possible misconduct.

    See the ORI website at
    (1993) https://ori.hhs.gov/images/ddblock/whistleblower_conditional_0.pdf
    (2011) http://ori.hhs.gov/images/ddblock/Whistleblower.pdf
    (still current) http://ori.hhs.gov/complainant

  8. While I think that I understand why the founders of Retraction Watch would give this advice, I think that it poses a problem to avoid contacting the person being accused on misconduct. In many cases it could be an honest error or oversight, or an erroneous interpretation by the accuser. By excluding the original authors, honest corrections or clarification of misunderstandings, which should be trivial, can become uselessly complicated (once a university or publisher is involved, they have to follow through with a great degree of formality). Also, and from experience, this can generate misunderstandings where the university administration believes that the author is aware of issues whereas it is not the case.

    Again, I understand where Retraction Watch is coming from here, and I’m not sure what the solution is. But this appears too radical to me. Maybe posting to PubPeer with an alert to the authors is best, as it insures transparency without involving immediately a formal inquiry.

    1. MRR, it has to be a matter of judgment by the whistleblower. Certainly what appears to be an honest error or mistake — or some trivial possible falsifications or plagiarism — does not need to be sent to an institutional Research Integrity Officer (RIO). Posting an observation or question on PubPeer may be appropriate, to get an explanation or apology for a mistake.

      But making an allegation of serious falsification, fabrication, or plagiarism should not be done on PubPeer — rather it should be sent confidentially to the institutional RIO (or to ORI or the funding agency) under the federal regulations.

      1. You are very US-centric in your advice! Not all countries have an ORI, not all universities have a ROI named, and even those that do have one make them hard to find. I also challenge you to FIND the ROI for a university in a language you do not read. Whistleblowers are all over the world, not just in the US for US researchers.

        1. @Alan: thanks for the clarification. It should be very clear that this “go to through the official channel first” recommendation is only for the gravest cases of misconduct. But most issues are not in that category, and I don’t think that I was the only one who understood the advice to be more general than that.

          @Debora: I completely agree that the advice is too US-centric. But maybe also it should be demanded of all universities and research institutions that they provide clear contact information and instructions in English for such cases.
          Maybe papers should come with a “doubts about this work? contact so-and-so”…

    2. I agree with Debora Weber-Wulff that the US-based “Offices of Research Integrity” are far from the norm in other countries. In the specific case of Mexico, most universities are not really interested in research integrity, and the concept of “misconduct” is rather related to workplace problems: term contracts, numerus clausus limiting access to some Faculties, bullying and mobbing, etc. The National University, for example, has an ombuds office, established 30 years ago ( http://www.ddu.unam.mx ). However, this office does not deal with issues related to scholar evaluation, issues outside of 120 days prior to complaint, and any issue for which a challenge under State law is available (virtually anything, I think).

      Maybe I’m wrong, but I think that contacting the ombudsman for matters related to scholar misconduct may be the best way to bury the whole allegation, in such a way that it will never, never emerge. While PubPeer is a direct, impacting, and efficient route, with many advantages: no waste of time, anonymity for those who wish to protect their identity, and the possibility to share data with the whole community, among other things.

  9. How can an opinion be retracted? In my view, this is a misuse of the term ‘retraction’ since there is no error, no misconduct, nor lack of oversight, and it was clearly presented as opinion. The original paper gave a view, and model for action, based on the literature and knowledge at the time and it remains valid. I would certainly not want Retractionwatch.org to be full of retractions of perfectly sensible and tenable models at the time they were published. (Obviously it would be nice if authors acknowledged in subsequent publications that their original model was wrong, although they may have moved onto other things.) The situation is worse: here the old opinion is still tenable, and merely a change in the view of the authors.

    1. I’m so glad you posted this, I very much agree. It doesn’t appear to meet the COPE guidelines criteria for a “retraction”.

    2. For these views about the retracted “opinion” to be valid, one would have to consider Lab Times to be an academic journal. It is not.

  10. I was just faced with the question today when I found two papers with very similar ideas and figures from the same author. There is first of all this problem of uncertainty: are they wrong or am I wrong? Then there is the question should I approach the authors or others (an editor or an institutional officer)? There is the principle of assuming an ideal world where we are all honest. It is clear that we then should open up a dialogue with the author. It is also the scientific approach to learn from each other by querying each other. Of course, those committing misconduct will cover up or act arrogantly or will not react. But then the ‘whistle-blower’ can use other avenues, such as the one suggested now by RW. So the policy should be, to approach the author first, unless there is compelling reason not to do so.

  11. I’m not even sure it is moral to go the Institution/ORI route. Years and years later the investigation might still be secretly rolling along, and the misconduct continuing/compounding. The whistleblower might as well have not bothered.

    RW previously ran an article from a lawyer about using the real courts. Only applicable to fraud but presumably it isn’t rare for the guilty to use a fake paper as support for an application for a gov grant? The courts at least will deal with things properly.

  12. Using the word ‘retraction’ is funny, as if the original piece you wrote was anywhere on a par with a published research article. Did you pore over a vast amount of existing literature? Did you design a study with sound methodology? Did you run the study? Did you perform statistical analyses? Did your ‘paper’ undergo peer reviews and revisions? Did your professional life depend on it? If not, please do not even suggest that your opinion piece is any where remotely related to what academics do.

  13. kindly tell what to do when editor does not retract the article after reporting plagiarism (in a pubmed indexed journal) and how long we should wait for the reply from the editors.

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