Why do — and don’t — journal editors retract articles?

Liz Wager, the chair of the Committee on Publication Ethics, knows something about retractions. In April, she and University College London’s Peter Williams published a paper in the Journal of Medical Ethics showing that journal editors’ approaches to retractions aren’t uniform.

The pair is back with another paper, using the same dataset of retractions and published in Science and Engineering Ethics, in which they ask journal editors why they retract — or don’t. The findings — more on them below — informed COPE’s 2009 guidelines on retractions, as did those in the April paper.

From the introduction to the new paper (link added):

Retraction is one of the most serious sanctions journals can take against authors in cases of misconduct, and can cause permanent damage to an academic career. However, journal policies and practices are not consistent. For example it appears that some journals will always retract in cases of redundant publication, while others will issue a notice of duplicate publication or do nothing. Even in well-publicised fraud cases, some journals have not retracted the affected articles (Sox and Rennie 2006).

Discussion of cases at COPE indicates that editors or publishers are sometimes reluctant to retract articles. Reasons for such reluctance may include beliefs that retractions may be made only by the authors; author disputes in which some authors request retraction while others oppose it; and concerns about, or actual threats of, litigation from authors.

Wager and Williams wanted to see which of these reasons were most salient, so they approached 11 editors, of whom 5 “agreed to be interviewed during the study timeframe.” Here are some of the highlights of those interviews.

First, an editor after our own hearts, who seems very interested in transparency:

It is worth noting here that one of the respondents felt that, in a retraction, where there is a dispute between authors, it is important in every case to ‘spell out’ who doesn’t agree and about what. Similarly, credit should be given to the person who noticed any error and brought the case to the attention of the editors.

Another brought to mind the case of Naoki Mori, some of whose 22 (and counting, most likely) retractions landed him a 10-year ban on publishing in American Society of Microbiology journals.

…one editor felt so strongly about a particular case of plagiarism that he wanted to ban the infringing author from publishing in the journal for 3 years. He took the case to COPE, who said that further punishment (i.e. beyond the retraction) was unnecessary, and reluctantly abided by this recommendation.

And there was a reminder that just because science moves beyond a particular finding, it doesn’t need to be retracted — although error-laded papers should still be withdrawn:

…one editor said that her journal often receives complaints from readers about articles that are years old, to the effect that the results or methods described are no longer valid. However, the editors consider that there is a distinction between a paper containing errors and one that is superseded in later years by further scientific or technological advances. As long as the paper took into account everything that was known at the time, the paper is considered legitimate.

A related response:

Another problem raised is that the act of ‘retraction’ has negative connotations, and so it was very important to be clear about the reason for taking this step. In some cases, it was pointed out, ‘correction’ notices could be used instead, which may have less negative effects on authors. Another interviewee made the point that although papers may be retracted, many of them still contained useful research and, of course, the paper still exists and therefore may be read and cited. For these reasons it is very important to choose one’s words very carefully in a retraction, and to emphasise what is correct in the paper.

Retraction Watch is looking at you, Journal of Biological Chemistry.

7 thoughts on “Why do — and don’t — journal editors retract articles?”

  1. I think sometimes the staturs of the group involved has something to do with what is done. Editors, especially those who have their own non-editorial careers (simultaneous or on temporary hold), are reluctant to act against powerful groups/individuals.

  2. I made this reasoned argument to the editor of Current Opinion in Hematology in which a 2001 review on Th1 and Th2 cells was published and to the managing editor of “Inflammation Research”, Michael “Mike” Parnham, in which I thought a duplicated vesrion of the Current Opinion in Hematology review had appeared:

    to tstossel@partners.org
    cc mparnham@springer.com
    date Sun, Jul 24, 2011 at 2:41 PM
    subject highly overlapping publications: Inflamm Res 51, 80-82 with Curr Opin Hematol 8, 47-51.
    mailed-by googlemail.com

    hide details Jul 24 (1 day ago)

    Dear editors of Current Opinion in Hematology, Thomas P. Stossel, and of Inflammation Research, Michael Parnham,

    Please find 2 .pdf files attached.

    I believe that the later publication comes from the former publication, with the exception of a single paragraph.

    The titles sound a bit different.

    The abstracts are nearly the same.

    The introductions are the same for the first 3 paragraphs.

    The fourth and subsequent paragraphs of the Inflammation Res 51, 80-82 introduction come
    from page 49 of the Current Opin Hematol. Often word for word, sometimes minor changes.

    The first 3 paragraphs of the “Differential signal transduction in Th1 and Th2 cells” section, page 81-82 of the Inflammation Res publication come from the the first 3 paragraphs of the section of the same name in Curr Opin Hematol publication, pages 49-50.

    The final paragraphs of both publications are the same.

    Only the last paragraph on page 81 of the Inflammation Res publication, 19 half lines, I could not find in Curr Opin Hematol.

    Is it O.K. to have some new stuff to read?

    They are both reviews in English for the same audience. I could not see that the later publication mentioned that it had been published elsewhere first, or even reference the earlier publication.

    Yours sincerely,

    Clare Francis.

    I received this from the editor in which the later publication appeared:

    Mike Parnham mjparnham@yahoo.co.uk
    to clare francis
    date Mon, Jul 25, 2011 at 11:38 AM
    subject Re: highly overlapping publications: Inflamm Res 51, 80-82 with Curr Opin Hematol 8, 47-51.
    signed-by yahoo.co.uk
    Important mainly because of your interaction with messages in the conversation.

    11:38 AM (6 hours ago)

    Dear Ms Francis

    Thank you for pointing out this overlap. Now 10 years on, there is little point in dragging out this issue into the open simply to muddy the name of a highly regarded scientist. However, I have drawn his and Dr Stossel’s attention to the importance of not just cutting and pasting from one article to the other.

    kind regards


    End of e-mail from Mike Parnham.

    My comments are:-

    1. Why doesn’t Michael “Mike” Parnham stick to the issue which I mentioned to him, i.e. the highly overlapping publications, the later one appearing in the journal of which he is the managing editor?

    2. Why does Michael “Mike” Parnham write “I have drawn his and Dr Stossel’s attention to the importance of not just cutting and pasting from one article to the other”, when it is was into Michael “Mike” Parnham’s journal that the “cutting and pasting” appeared. One might mistakenly think that Dr. Stossel’s journal were at fault.

    Rather saddened,


    1. This is true, the powers behind a publication makes retraction difficult. I am trying to retract a publication for the past 3 years without success because of the company and names behind it… will never give up.

  3. The distinction between a Correction and a Retraction is a very important one. It could make or break a career – a retraction is stigmatized because of its association with fraud or at best serious incompetence, a correction is much less of a problem and indeed makes you look responsible and willing to change your mind.

    Plus if you’re really cheeky you can list a Correction as a published article on your CV so it boosts your impact metrics 😛

    The problem is there’s no clear guidelines on how to tell the difference. If your “Correction” renders the original paper, sans correction, pretty much invalid, shouldn’t it be retracted and then resubmitted as a new paper?

    But then the stigma comes in.

    Maybe there ought to be a system whereby, in cases of honest error, authors can retract a paper but with the understanding that the corrected version will automatically be published in the same journal? Bigger than a correction, smaller than a retraction.

    That would have problems of its own no doubt but it might encourage people to come clean about honest errors.

  4. COPE is officially a UK Charity, and Liz Wager is a Chair of this organisation overseeing the “ethics” of over 5000 editors of scientific journals all over the world. Her specialisation is retractions.You would expect her to be a scientist, and the one familiar with academic rules. You also would expect her to be a person of integrity. And so I thought when asking COPE to review the refusal of one editor to retract a paper for plagiarism. Imagine my shock when COPE refused to act because they said that unpublished research cannot be plagiarised! (The unpublished research was my PhD research of five years.) I send them three definitions of plagiarism, including one adopted by COPE. They all specifically include unpublished research. This did not help me. They continued, in several subsequent decisions, to insist on their “stance” making the unpublished research un-plagiarisable. Only in the last decision they said they made a “mistake”. Meanwhile, they made another decision that prohibited them to act because the editor had seen my complain a few months before, at the moment when he was not yet a member of COPE. See this very peculiar exchange of emails at http://www.universitytorontofraud.com/committee.htm

    Later, Liz Wager insisted that COPE refused to act only because the paper was too old (which was, as you can see in the link above, not an issue, and, of course, could not have been a reason for not retracting the paper and, for COPE – not supporting my complaint against the editor). This her new explanation can be seen in the comments to the article “Retractions up tenfold”, 20 August 2009, Times Higher Education (I, of course, have it downloaded).

    My personal opinion, therefore, is that this Charity is urgently not needed. And, the sooner, the better.

  5. The two cases of non-retraction cited in the comments here make the point of the first comment in a particularly poignant fashion. How sad and how true! It’s one thing if a non-scientist, non-intellectual preacher (Martin Luther King Jr) plagiarizes, but it’s entirely another if a “respected scientist” does it. Methinks it should be particularly more punished if someone of high status does it, rather than less punished. But that’s not the way the world works.

  6. Re “respected scientist”. I had one amazing reply to my case: “I know her for more than a year, she is a respected scientist”. I answered thus: “I knew her for five years, I did not expect this at the end”. (This is not verbatim, but close.)
    In the 80s, universities were flooded with “scientists” from the marihuana generation, they knew everything about human relations and about how to make impression. Their science was also about human relations and making impressions. I’ll tell you this: if someone cannot keep meaningful conversation on a concrete subject for 20 minutes, that’s the sign. They also sit on the floor; I mean they do it much earlier than you learn they are a fraud.

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