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This ﬁgure is withdrawn ‘due to lack of supporting data’ (“Someone seems to have made this up.”)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