How does retraction change publishing behavior? Mark Bolland and Andrew Grey, who were two members of a team whose work led to dozens of retractions for Yoshihiro Sato, now third on the Retraction Watch leaderboard, joined forces with Vyoma Mistry to find out. We asked Bolland to answer several questions about the new University of Auckland team’s paper, which appeared in Accountability in Research.
Retraction Watch (RW): You “undertook a survey of publication rates, for authors with multiple retractions in the biomedical literature, to determine whether they changed after authors’ first retractions.” What did you find?
Mark Bolland (MB): We wondered whether people continue to publish after they have had more than one of their papers retracted. We identified 100 authors with more than one first-author retraction from the Retraction Watch database (the top 10 from the Retraction watch leaderboard, 40 with at least 10 retractions, and 50 with 2-5 retractions). 82 authors were associated with a retraction in which scientific misconduct was listed as a reason for retraction in the Retraction Watch database.
Publication rates dropped quite dramatically after an author’s first retraction, with less than half the authors publishing one or more papers/year at 4 years after their first retraction. Likewise, only 22% were publishing at >50% of their pre-retraction rate by 4y after their first retraction, and by 8y after the first retraction, the proportion was 14%.
The decreases in publication rates were similar for individuals with 2-5 retractions, with at least 10 retractions, and the ‘top-10’ group, and were also similar for authors associated with a retraction for misconduct and those without such an association.
There was a small number of authors who continued to publish regularly for many years after their first retraction, including publishing first or last author papers.
RW: What factors do you think explain the results?
MB: We didn’t contact any authors directly so can only speculate, but it seems that for most authors who end up with multiple retractions, the first retraction leads to a rapid cessation of publishing, presumably because because they leave their position or are unable to obtain research funding. For the small number of authors who continue to publish regularly, it would be very interesting to know what was different for these authors from the majority who stopped publishing rapidly. For example, did they undergo retraining or re-education to correct their previous practices, or do similar problems exist in the unretracted papers to the problems which led to the retractions.
RW: You found that while publication rates may decline after the first retraction, “There was no difference in the decline in publication rates between authors associated with a retraction for misconduct and those not associated with such a retraction.” Does this suggest that the cause of retraction, as well as the number, has less effect than just having a retraction at all?
MB: It might do, but the overwhelming majority of individuals were associated with a retraction for misconduct. (That doesn’t mean that the author committed misconduct, but that the retraction notice listed a reason for retraction which falls under the category of misconduct). So it might be that there were too few individuals who were not associated with a retraction for misconduct to detect differences between the groups.
RW: Other studies have found that authors who have retracted papers see a much higher rate of decline in citations of their work overall if the retractions are for misconduct than if they are for honest error. You found that “After the first retraction, citation rates of retracted papers declined whereas those of unretracted papers by the same authors remained unchanged.” What do you make of that finding?
MB: Based on our experience with the Sato/Iwamoto case, when we looked closely at unretracted papers, we commonly found issues that raised concerns about the integrity of the papers. We have notified these to the journals affected but many are yet to take action even after a few years. If our experience applies to other authors with multiple retractions, it seems likely that many of their unretracted papers would also have issues identified if the paper is closely examined. However, there doesn’t seem to be a process for systematically examining the entire body of research of individuals with multiple retractions. Institutional investigations mostly seem to be quite narrow in scope, only investigating papers about which concerns have been raised.
So there are potentially several explanations, including that the unretracted papers might have no issues with their integrity. Alternately, the papers might have integrity issues that are not detected by people who cite them, especially if they are unaware of concerns raised about the author’s retracted papers.
RW: You write that the findings “raise questions about the management of authors with multiple retractions or who have committed scientific misconduct.” What kinds of questions?
MB: If such individuals stop publishing because they lose their job or cannot get research funding, is this the best solution? Should there be attempts made to retrain and rehabilitate such authors and give them a second chance, especially when there are likely important factors in the academic environment that contribute to the actions of the author? At least one institution has run a rehabilitation programme that they felt was successful.
RW: You made use of our retraction database in your work. What tips do you have for other researchers who might be interested in doing the same thing?
MB: Go for it! It is a wonderful resource and we found it easy to use and extract the data we needed using simple formulae in Excel. It was also fairly straightforward to merge data from the Retraction Watch Database and Scopus.
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