Legal threats, opacity, and deceptive research practices: A look at more than 100 retractions in business and management

Dennis Tourish

What can studying retractions in business and management journals tell us? Earlier this year, Dennis Tourish, of the University of Sussex, and Russell Craig, of the University of Portsmouth, both in the UK, published a paper in the Journal of Management Inquiry that analyzed 131 such retractions. The duo — who were also two of three authors of a recent paper on retractions in economics — also interviewed three journal editors involved in retractions, two co-authors of retracted papers who were not responsible for the fraud, and one researcher found to have committed fraud. We asked Tourish, the author of an upcoming book on “fraud, deception and meaningless research” in management studies, some questions about the study by email.

Retraction Watch (RW): You found a “large proportion of retractions in high-quality journals.” Would you say that is consistent with findings in other fields?

Dennis Tourish (DT): Yes, it is consistent with some research we have done into retractions in economics and psychology. We know that similar patterns have been reported in studies of retractions in the life sciences. There are two main possible explanations for this. Higher ranked journals may have more editorial resources and may be more diligent at identifying papers with problems. It is also possible that their high status makes them an attractive outlet for those who engage in fraud and poor practices generally. Academics are under more pressure than ever to publish in such journals. It would not be surprising that many academics are tempted to take unethical shortcuts.

RW: You write that “Classifying these reasons was not straightforward,” and you quote an earlier paper as saying that “For masterful obfuscation, it’s hard to beat the wording of some retractions.” Can you explain?

DT: Many retraction statements just baldly announce that a paper has been retracted without giving any explanation. Examples: ‘The author has retracted this paper.’ ‘This article has been retracted.’ Others simply say things like ‘The retraction has been agreed before print publication based on discussions about the presentation of the empirical results.’ Such statements tell us very little. It may be that editors are keen to avoid giving offence, and are also seeking to avoid the possibility of legal action. Nevertheless, we don’t believe that vagueness is defensible. It makes it difficult to ascertain the extent of various problems such as fraud and plagiarism. Where flawed analysis is the issue, a refusal to spell it out in detail prevents other researchers learning from whatever mistakes have been made. They are therefore more likely to be repeated. Clear statements of the reasons for retractions are vital. And it is more important than this in disciplines where faulty research has implications for human well-being and may well have life threatening consequences.

RW: You write that “it seems likely that the extent of research misconduct is underrepresented in qualitative research.” Can you explain how you came to conclude that?

DT: In our sample of 131 retractions, we found 101 papers that were still online, not all of them clearly labelled as retracted by the way. 87 of these were quantitative in nature and 14 were qualitative. We don’t see any reason to believe that qualitative researchers are inherently more ethical than their quantitative counterparts. We speculate that quantitative research has more set protocols for analysis, and that as a result problems with analysis may be easier to detect. But we point out that qualitative researchers also have the opportunity to cherry pick from their data and exaggerate their sample sizes. If this is correct, it adds to the view that the existing level of retraction is likely to under-state the level of misconduct.

RW: One of the editors you interviewed said, “They sent me letters from lawyers, they personally attacked me . . . The best was . . . when it started getting really clear that these papers . . . were going to be retracted. An author . . . emailed my dean and my provost and said that I needed to be investigated . . . I dreaded waking up in the morning . . . Every day for over a year . . .” Is there a way to deter this behavior?

DT: All of the editors we spoke to were threatened with legal action, but the quotation you highlight is a particularly serious example of this. The editors also stressed that they were fully supported by the publisher throughout. I don’t see any way of deterring legal action, but I do think that when editors have the support of publishers, co-editors and their wider editorial board, they are in a stronger position to resist pressure. It is clear that too many editors are still reluctant to take action. For example, we interviewed a co-author of a paper retracted because one of the authors involved had invented the data. Our interviewee mentioned other papers with the same individual that should be retracted, but said that the journal where they appeared had not been in touch. This is one of the very top journals in its field. Interestingly, our interviewee has just told us that about a year after this they had emailed the journal’s editor to urge the retraction of these papers. They didn’t even receive a reply! This is scandalous and shows how bad the problem is.

RW: You found that “Twelve papers in our database were retracted with no clear reason provided,” and one of your recommendations is to “Require journals to make clearer statements of reasons for retraction.” We have been calling for this since we launched in 2010, and others have done the same. Are you hopeful that things will change?

DT: In the short term, no. I don’t feel confident about this. There still seems to be a great deal of complacency about the level of misconduct, and too many editors, publishers and academics continue to ignore serious problems.  Some editors and journals appear to be playing lip service to the COPE Guidelines. The journal webpages say the journal complies with them, but one of these is that clear reasons be given for retractions. Indicating who requested the retraction is not the same thing as giving a reason for it. In the longer term, a failure to give clear reasons for retraction is so manifestly absurd that pressure to change can only grow. However, it would be good if publishers and journals acted before they are compelled to!

RW: You also recommend that publishers and others should “Investigate the whole body of work of authors who have papers retracted for fraud.” In our experience, researchers sometimes cry “witch hunt” in response to a recommendation like that. How would you counter that argument?

DT: There are serial fraudsters who have now had numerous papers retracted. It beggars belief to think that the rest of their work is sound. Yet numerous papers authored by people like James Hunton, who has had 37 papers retracted, remain in circulation. Researchers are left to make up their own minds whether they can trust their content, and many might not even be aware that they are reading the work of someone who has had numerous retractions. It does the research community no good at all to ignore such problems. We have to demonstrate the integrity of our work now more than ever, and this is not helped when we turn a blind eye to the strong possibility of fraudulent work remaining in circulation.

RW: You recommend that the term “questionable research practices” — aka QRPs — should be replaced with “deceptive research practices.” That goes a step beyond calling them “detrimental research practices,” which is what a U.S. National Academy of Sciences panel recommended last year. Why do you think that “deceptive” is a better word?

DT: Take the example of p-hacking. The current practice of describing this as ‘questionable’ provides a fig-leaf to cover what can only be viewed as deceptive conduct.  Clear language is essential, but sadly lacking in too many cases. With p-hacking there is an obvious intent to deceive, by presenting results as much more robust than they are. Stronger language can signal the unacceptability of these practices to new researchers. Perhaps it can also remind senior, more experienced researchers that they came into academic life to publish interesting ideas and pursue the truth, rather than to publish for its own sake.

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