Sigh: “The purpose of keeping these retraction notices slim is not to produce too much detail”

Regular readers of this blog by now know that one of our goals is to make retractions as open and informative as possible. Which is why when they’re not, we get irritated that not everyone seems to agree.

Consider the editors of Computational and Theoretical Chemistry, which this month has retracted two papers from a group of researchers in Iran. The articles were titled “Determination of the electrode potentials for substituted 1,2-dihydroxybenzenes in aqueous solution: Theory and experiment” first published online in July 2006 and cited 25 times, according to the Thomson Scientific Web of Knowledge, and “Calculation of electrode potentials of 5-(1,3-dioxo-2-phenyl-indan-2-yl)-2,3-dihydroxy-benzoic acid, molecular structure and vibrational spectra: A combined experimental and computational study,” which appeared in December 2006. (Both articles were published in the journal’s previous incarnation as the Journal of  Molecular Structure: THEOCHEM.)

The reason given in each case  is the same — and tantalizingly cryptic:

This article has been retracted at the request of the authors, as serious errors have been detected after publication.

“Serious errors” could mean many things, so the nature of the problems is anyone’s guess. Did the authors misinterpret their results? Did one or more of them fabricate data? Was it a widespread issue affecting other publications?

We’d hope that’s the sort of information the journal editors might a) want to know and b) would be eager to convey to their readers. We’d hope.

But after speaking with one of the editors of Computational and Theoretical Chemistry, our hopes were dashed. Ajit Thakker, of the University of New Brunswick, agreed with our description of the retraction notices as “pretty slim,” but added the rather revealing tautology that

the purpose of keeping these retraction notices slim is not to produce too much detail.

Thakker said the papers in question “had too many errors” to stand, and that the matter was brought to his attention by the authors themselves.

Did the researchers say whether the mistakes were honest or intentional efforts to mislead? Thakker demurred.

It’s not often easy to tell the difference between data fabrication and incompetence.

We agree — indeed, if the difference were more straightforward we’d post a lot less often on this blog — and we’re sympathetic to journal editors who try to keep their pages clean of fraud. But that fact doesn’t obviate the larger point, which is that in our opinion journals should demand more of their authors when it comes to retractions.

The implications aren’t trivial. One of the Iranian authors, Mohammad Reza Ganjali, of the Center of Excellence in Electrochemistry at the University of Tehran, has 89 papers to his name since 2002, an impressive bibliography. Are researchers to assume that the same kind of sloppiness — or other issues — that affected the two retracted papers did not touch the rest of Ganjali’s work, or that of his coauthors?

Thakkar, for his part, suggested that his journal wasn’t ready to make that assumption with future contributions from Ganjali and his colleagues:

We’d certainly give it stricter scrutiny.

We e-mailed Ganjali and the first author of the papers, Siavash Riahi, for comment, but haven’t heard back yet.

So far, to our knowledge no other article by this group has been retracted. We’ll be curious to see whether that changes.

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