Why was that paper retracted? Peer-reviewed evidence that Retraction Watch isn’t crazy

Retraction Watch readers will no doubt have realized by now that we are often frustrated by the opacity of many of the retraction notices we cover. And some critics may wonder if we’re overstating that case.

Well, wonder no more.

In a study published online yesterday in the Journal of Medical Ethics, Liz Wager and Peter Williams looked at retractions from 1988 to 2008. Their findings:

Medline retractions have increased sharply since 1980 and currently represent 0.02% of included articles. Retractions were issued by authors (63%), editors (21%), journals (6%), publishers (2%) and institutions (1%). Reasons for retraction included honest error or non-replicable findings (40%), research misconduct (28%), redundant publication (17%) and unstated/unclear (5%). Some of the stated reasons might have been addressed by corrections.

Among their examples are some real gems. We particularly like these, with our interpretation/annotation in parentheses:

‘important irregularities’ (Well, if they’re important irregularities, why don’t you tell us what they are?)

the authors ‘no longer stand by their results’ (Are they standing somewhere else in the lab? C’mon, tell us why they can’t stand by the results anymore.)

‘incorrect data were found to have been included on the study Case Report Forms’ (Paging Dr. Kafka.)

This figure is withdrawn ‘due to lack of supporting data’  (“Someone seems to have made this up.”)

‘Retraction…is being done for legal reasons based on the advice of counsel’ (We’d comment on this, but we’d probably get sued.)

‘the Review contained numerous errors in the text and references that were not discovered until after publication, although neither novel ideas nor data were misappropriated’ (As journalism error maven Craig Silverman would say on RegretTheError.com, “Rest is fine.”)

As Wager and Williams conclude:

Journals’ retraction practices are not uniform. Some retractions fail to state the reason, and therefore fail to distinguish error from misconduct.

We agree, of course. The authors’ remedy is that journals follow 2009 guidelines from the Committee on Publication Ethics, which funded the research and where Wager is chair. Those guidelines were informed, the authors note, by the findings of this study.

The paper is one of several published recently on retractions. We covered two previous papers in the same journal, both of which echo the new study’s findings that retractions are on the rise. This week, The Chronicle of Higher Education highlighted a new one about how often scientists continued to cite retracted papers.

Shameless plug alert: One of us (Ivan) will be on a panel with Wager in Baltimore in May at the Council of Science Editors meeting. The topic: How journal editors can detect and deter fraud and misconduct.

5 thoughts on “Why was that paper retracted? Peer-reviewed evidence that Retraction Watch isn’t crazy”

  1. Retraction…is being done for legal reasons based on the advice of counsel” may mean “We forgot to read the small print in the contract with our funding source saying they could veto what we published and they didn’t like what we found”

  2. And that looks like a clever way to publish something despite the sponsor of the research not wanting it published, it the retraction gets you out of the legal trap, that is.

  3. DrMobs
    Retraction…is being done for legal reasons based on the advice of counsel” may mean “We forgot to read the small print in the contract with our funding source saying they could veto what we published and they didn’t like what we found”

    joe
    And that looks like a clever way to publish something despite the sponsor of the research not wanting it published, it the retraction gets you out of the legal trap, that is.

    I agree with both these reasons and they are good reasons, which means that I think people should implement them, as long as they can get back door approval of the publish//retract strategy from their funding sources… and even if they can’t, because a devious funder may send you mixed mss then stab you in the back when you try to follow through. And if that happens, you didn’t want any more funding from them anyway. Which will get you published in retraction watch anyway.
    This will have advantages for the individual student and researcher as well. By the way, I did my first research study, “Finding circadian rhythms in Pterophyllum eimeki (the common angelfish)” in my parent’s kitchen, with my father’s fish and equipment he brought home from his psychology laboratory at MacMurray College in Jacksonville Illinois, when I was eleven years old in 1964. and I got to go to the State Science Fair in Champaign-Urbana, where my stepmother was studying for her PhD in statistics. The study used fish in a tank, two tanks, one with one fish and the other with three, both with light cells and light sources (like those that used to open bank doors for the customer), hooked up to an “event recorder” which produced punch tape. The study was supposed to last twenty days but it ended after eighteen because algae grew over the aquarium walls and obscured the light source. I was still able to get a significant circadian activity signal by cutting the data into two periods of ten days each with two days overlap. I found that the three fish tank woke up a half an hour before it was to get light in the morning, which woke up the one fish in the tank next to it. Angelfish turned out to be perfect for the experiment because they produced one short signal when crossing the beam sideways, and one long signal when passing through the beam long ways (they are a very flat, pancake-shaped fish.)

    I spent long hours on the living room floor manually counting up the signals on the paper tape, and then had my stepmother help me to analyze the data statistically. My father suggested the experiment, I looked it up and found that no-one had yet studied circadian rhythms in angelfish. My father supplied all the reseach materials and the fish. The fish consented to be studied by eagerly gathering at the surface to be fed, and especially by not dying during the experiment. They remained in perfect health for several months after that, back in the big group fish tank.

    This is the first time this study has every been published anywhere, and I am grateful to Retraction Watch for allowing me the space to contribute this advancement of scientific knowledge. I acknowledge no conflict of interest except that I liked fish and my father was pushing me into an experimental career. I am now retired, but I still have the orignal paper tapes (the data) in my garage. No autopsies were done on the fish, who died of natural causes (they were eaten by my cat.)

    This study will be cross published in my blog, Tempus Fugit, so even if it disappears from here it will be available there.

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