Happy anniversary, Retraction Watch: What we’ve learned, and what’s in store for year two

Adam and Ivan at Retraction Watch HQ, aka NYC's Market Diner

Today marks the 1-year anniversary of the launch of Retraction Watch. We’d like to thank our readers, tipsters, and fans for your support and feedback — and our helpful critics who have spurred us to do better.

Over the past 12 months we’ve written more than 250 posts about retractions ranging from the extraordinary — think Joachim Boldt and his 90-odd withdrawals, and the Byzantine case of Silvia Bulfone-Paus — to the trivial (much of the plagiarism, for instance); the laudable (a swift one in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, to pick one) to the ludicrous (the reason for that retraction is “none of your damn business,” one editor told us).

We haven’t done a careful count — more on more rigorous indexing later — but those posts cover something like 200 retractions, given that there are more than 120 between just Boldt, Bulfone-Paus, and Naoki Mori. That is unusually high activity for a 12-month period; the annual average for the previous 10 years was about 80. (Let us be the first to point out that any correlation between our founding and that high number does not imply causation.)

We made a rather presumptuous promise when we started this project. Namely, that by writing about retractions we would be opening a window onto the world of scientific publishing, and, by implication, science itself. Indeed, we encountered more than a little skepticism at first. But we believe the stories we’ve relayed to our growing and, we’ll note, overwhelmingly enthusiastic readership, have made good on that promise.

One way to measure that enthusiasm is traffic. We’ve logged more than 800,000 pageviews, and more than 650 of you have signed up for our emails. Thousands more are RSS subscribers. (What, you aren’t subscribed either of those ways? For shame. Go over to our right-hand column and do it. We’ll wait.)

So what have we seen? Well, for starters, it’s pretty clear that retractions are newsworthy, especially for members of the scientific community. And we believe the appeal is not, as some have suggested, the train-wreck draw of scandal or base schadenfreude. Your comments reflect a deep concern with scientific integrity, with correcting the scientific record, and with justifiable pride when people do the right thing.

We’ve also found significant variations when it comes to handling retractions. Many editors strive for transparency in their retraction notices, offering detailed explanations for what went wrong — and, in the process, revealing the best aspects of a scientific approach to information. Others think the facts are “none of your damn business,” or tell curious readers to ask the retracted authors to supply them. In our view, that attitude betrays a contempt of both a journal’s readership and the essence of science, which at its most fundamental is the promulgation of knowledge and truth.

Okay, that’s a little self-serving; after all, we’re in this to tell good stories, and people who get in the way of that fall to the bottom of our holiday gift list. But we’ll stand by the point. Publishers and editors of science journals ultimately serve not only their readers but the entire science community. That’s one reason we deplore paywalls for retraction notices and urge journals that issue press releases when papers come out to do the same when that article is later retracted.

So what can you expect in year two? Well, in keeping with the fact that we rely so heavily on our readers for support and tips, we asked some of you for suggestions. Here are some highlights, and who suggested them:

  • Video dispatches, in which we discuss retractions and offer commentary (Gary Schwitzer, publisher of Health News Review)
  • Events, perhaps organized at universities around talks about scientific integrity and the publishing process (“Clare Francis,” a prolific pseudonymous tipster)
  • More retractions from disciplines outside of the life sciences (Liz Wager, chair of the Committee on Publication Ethics and author of COPE’s retraction guidelines)
  • Maps of retractions, including a social network showing citations and influence (Clare Francis and Bill Heisel, a contributing editor at Reporting on Health and the creator of Antidote)
  • A database of retraction notices (multiple requests over the year)

We like them all. And we’ve taken the first important step toward the last two, in time for this anniversary. If you look over at the right side of this page (you may have to scroll up), you’ll see a widget, “Retraction posts by author, country, journal, subject, and type.” Hit the dropdown menu. Those categories — and we’re only about halfway through tagging all our posts — could be used to populate a map, a database, or just give other reporters interesting story ideas.

We plan on experimenting with video, too. And anyone want to host a Retraction Watch event? (Maybe we’ll have t-shirts by then, just like our friends at the Journal of Universal Rejection.)

Again, thanks to all of our readers. We’re in this for the long haul, and we hope you’ll never have a reason to retract your support.

32 thoughts on “Happy anniversary, Retraction Watch: What we’ve learned, and what’s in store for year two”

  1. I think you’re doing a great job and providing a most valuable service to science. I hope by encouraging transparency in scientific publishing investigators will think twice before “cutting corners” in their research. Fewer retractions and erratums due to a higher level of integrity among scientists can only help to increase public trust in our endeavors will strengthen continued public financial support for our most important and valuable hard work.

  2. Happy birthday! Great work. Will we also see Correction Watch and Brief Communications Arising Watch?

    FYI PubMed has indexed 303 retraction notices over the past 12 months. (And Web of Science probably even more).

  3. Great work!

    One thing I can see that might be contributing to your varied responses from journals, is the hard fact that many of them are just not “hip-to-the-beat-daddy-O”. They’re living in the last century and they just don’t take bloggers seriously. They don’t think you have the same clout as the reuglar media. They think you’re just some guy in his parent’s basement who can’t really touch them (hence the “none of your business” response – I wonder if they’d respond the same if a major newspaper came knocking?)

    There are 2 solutions to this. One is to align yourselves with a major media brand that carries some weight. Not good for several reasons (see several AOL and Discovery blogs for evidence of heavy-handed tactics). The other is to get your blog recognized IN the regular media, so the mainstream folks know about it, and in effect you become the authority, the media brand, the go-to place for information. You should be talking to the NCBI, so your database is linked from PubMed. You should be talking to NIH and NSF, so reviewers have access to your database as part of the review process. Right now you have very little competition in this particular “news market”.

    Anyway, keep up the good work. If you go 501(c)3, hit me up for a donation.

  4. Your work is a major contribution to science which I define as the pursuit of truth. Thank you and keep it up! Probably, in a few years, you will be regarded as the ones who started either the downfall of the journal system or a stark change in how it handles fraud.

  5. Congratulations on a great first year! Citing examples of retractions and plagiarism like you do helps create awareness of the problems in STM publication and (hopefully) causes authors and researchers to think about what kind of preventative measures they need to take — something we at iThenticate think is very important. Keep up the good work!

  6. Retractions represent abrupt alterations in our scientific and medical knowledge. Retraction Watch is singularly helpful in rapidly communicating these changes to the public. In just one year Retraction Watch has become a respected member of the scientific community.

    Congratulations and Happy Birthday!

    Steve Shafer
    Anesthesia & Analgesia

  7. Congratulations!! This is a very valuable and important blog! Keep on going!
    …I am a fan of the Retraction Watch event!! Should be possible to get grants for that :-)?

  8. “by writing about retractions we would be opening a window onto the world of scientific publishing, and, by implication, science itself”

    Also, your work is going to affect the law. In the US there is a court ruling called Daubert which clarified the criteria required for the admissibility of scientific evidence into a trial. One of the Daubert criteria is whether or not the idea/rational to be admitted has been published in a peer reviewed journal, or not. Your work gives this criterion a massive kick in the gut.

    As to the future, why don’t you consider looking into the past?

  9. Retraction Watch opens a fascinating window into the practice of science. I’m a philosopher of science and I’ve been recommending your blog to everyone who will listen (and more than a few who won’t). I’ve been interested in how to think about science gone wrong for a couple of decades and your blog has supplied me with more interesting cases in the last year than I had learned about in the previous ten. I give presentations on research ethics to undergraduates and I now always point them to your blog. One of our PhD students has decided to consider the relevance of some of the cases discussed in your blog to his thesis.

    Thanks for all your hard work.

  10. I found out this blog a couple of months ago, and since then I have a look at it almost every day. Very interesting. Congratulations!

  11. It has been stated already in many forums that ethical integrity in publications, as an important part of science ethics, must be well above any personal interest or external pressure regarding publications, and it is ultimately the only way to ensure the respectful and helpful role of science in our society. Today, publication of scientific results is trickier than ever (and in consequence retractions), which is causing a serious increase in unethical behaviors. In my opinion, Retraction Watch is one of the most valuable contributions to Science ever!

    Congratulations on a great first anniversary! Keep going …

  12. I don’t know how you do it, and you have day jobs. It must be exhausting.

    Keep up the good work!

  13. Congrats. This has been one of my favorite blogs to read since I found it, and it has made me think differently about my research as well as the process of scientific publishing. Looking forward to what you have in store next!

  14. Congratulations and a “well done” for keeping the focus sharp.
    There is little doubt that Retraction Watch and other similar sites are having some effect. But as Gerhard Fröhlich, University of Linz points out regarding the German Universities and the spotlight on their plagiarism “in almost every case anonymous allegations coupled with mass media outrage – in most recent years with an interim period of outrage on the internet – were necessary before the institutions themselves agreed to take action”. The Silvia Bulfone-Paus affaire being a case in point. It seems clear to me that without the internet and sites such as yours the current “rash” of politician PhD’s being rescinded in Germany would not be happening.

  15. Congratulations!
    There is just one step between being somewhere around science and being about science: anonymous posting (letters that is) should be banned. It’s definitely not a good example that many scientific journals stepped back; this is the step back in their ethics, integrity, morals and seriousness.

  16. only recently discovered you. Happy so many retractions are in the life sciences – this is an active field where results don’t just accumulate on bookshelves, but competitors are re-doing and building on the data of others. And please do not trivialize plagiarism – there is something particularly evil about how simple it is to achieve.

  17. Just found you guys! LOVE the site – as a former researcher whose first decade of parenting included the infamous Wakefield debacle and who also writes about the scientific evidence (or lack thereof!) behind parenting and children’s health – kudos and keep it up!

  18. Congratulations!

    Retraction Watch is now cited in
    Infect Immun. 2011 Aug 8. [Epub ahead of print]

    Last year, the journalists Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus launched a blog called “Retraction Watch,” which is devoted to the examination of retracted articles “as a window into the scientific process”; sadly, they seem to have no trouble finding material.

  19. Guys,
    Congrats for 1 year of your work! We really need to take care of reputation of our profession. And you contribute to this greatly!

    Just one comment some part your anniversary article:
    Please do not distribute this very inaccurate idea “correlation does not imply causation” within life sciences community.
    In fact, correlation DOES imply causation unless it is statistically non-significant. It is true that frequently it is difficult to resolve. But it is still there. See refs below for details.
    Box 1 in “Cause and Effect in Biology Revisited: Is Mayr’s Proximate-Ultimate Dichotomy Still Useful?” Science 16 December 2011: 1512-1516.
    B. Shipley, Cause and Correlation in Biology (Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, 2000).
    J. Pearl, Causality (Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, 2000).

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