Nature comes clean about retractions and why they’re on the rise

courtesy Nature

This week’s Nature includes a refreshing and soul-searching editorial about retractions. Excerpt (we added links and corrected a misspelling and wrong country in the editorial after a reader noted the errors below):

This year, Nature has published four retractions, an unusually large number. In 2009 we published one. Throughout the past decade, we have averaged about two per year, compared with about one per year in the 1990s, excluding the pulse of retractions of papers co-authored by [Austrian German physicist Jan Hendrick Hendrik Schön].

Given that Nature publishes about 800 papers a year, the total is not particularly alarming, especially because only some of the retractions are due to proven misconduct. A few of the Nature research journals have also had to retract papers in recent years, but the combined data do no more than hint at a trend. A broader survey revealed even smaller proportions: in 2009, Times Higher Education commissioned a survey by Thomson Reuters that counted 95 retractions among 1.4 million papers published in 2008. But the same survey showed that, since 1990 — during which time the number of published papers doubled — the proportion of retractions increased tenfold (see

The editorial highlights “misconduct by journals and the community, an increased ability to create and to detect unduly manipulated images, and greater willingness by journals to publish retractions” as potential reasons for the increase, as well as others. The editors also say that they “deplore” the actions of a group of anonymous group called “Stem Cell Watch” whose apparently unfounded allegations were widely circulated.

The editorial is worth a read.

For comparison, Science has run one retraction so far this year, and two last year. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) published seven retractions so far this year, and the same number last year — although one of those was of a profile, not a scientific paper.

We welcome the frank discussion. Nature Medicine ran a similar editorial several years ago after a high-profile case in that journal.

We do want to urge Nature to take one step further. In the editorial, they write:

We will also list the retraction on our press release if the original paper was itself highlighted to the media.

We think that should be standard, as we’ve noted.

But take this example: Last month, Amy Wagers, an up and coming stem cell researcher at Harvard, retracted a paper published earlier this year in Nature on a way to rejuvenate blood-forming stem cells. That original study was not press-released. Consistent with the policy in this week’s editorial (and what Nature Publishing Group’s press office told us when we covered the Wagers retraction), the retraction was therefore not press-released.

But the original paper did receive a lot of press attention, thanks to press releases by other institutions, including Wagers’ own Joslin Diabetes Institute. (That release, we should note, has not been updated to include a mention of the retraction.)

So we would like to respectfully suggest that whenever a journal issues a retraction, it sends out a press release. We don’t necessarily think most journals will take us up on this effort at what we think is a step toward greater transparency, any more than we think they’ll take our sister blog up on its suggested embargo policy language designed to do the same thing. But we figured we’d try.

5 thoughts on “Nature comes clean about retractions and why they’re on the rise”

  1. I was unable to get the obviously plagiarised paper retracted. You hit the wall that shouldn’t be there. You only see the cases published that are approved by publishing business. See another case:
    There is my correspondence with the editor there and there is shocking correspondence with COPE: they falsified the definition of plagiarism insisting that unpublished research cannot be plagiarised:

    I guess everybody knows what COPE is, so now you will know more…

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