Surprise, surprise: Study says retraction notices often aren’t honest about misconduct

A paper published online the other day in the Journal of Medical Ethics puts some numbers on an issue near and dear to Retraction Watch: How transparent are retraction notices when it comes to misconduct?

David Resnik and Gregg Dinse, of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, looked at the 208 cases closed by the U.S. Office of Research Integrity from 1992 to 2011 that involved “official findings of research misconduct.” As they note:

75 of these cases cited at least one published article affected by misconduct for a total of 174 articles. For 127 of these 174, we found both the article and a retraction or correction statement. Since eight of the 127 published statements consisted of simply the word ‘retracted,’ our analysis focused on the remaining 119 for which a more detailed retraction or correction was published.

Even that background information is quite disturbing, if you stop to think about it. It means that more than a quarter of papers affected by misconduct, as determined by the ORI, live on unmarked in the literature.

But the findings aren’t pretty either:

The most important finding of our study is that scientists frequently do not fully and honestly explain why an article associated with research misconduct is being retracted or corrected. Of the articles that were retracted or corrected after an ORI finding of misconduct (with more than a one-word retraction statement), only 41.2% indicated that misconduct (or some other ethical problem) was the reason for the retraction or correction, and only 32.8% identified the specific ethical concern (such as fabrication, falsification or plagiarism). In some cases, it appears that authors misstated the reasons for retraction or correction because they described the problem as being due to error, loss of data or failure to replicate results when, in fact, misconduct was at issue. Among the retracted articles, 7.8% (8/103) simply provided a notice of retraction, without giving any further explanation.

The findings will come as no surprise to Retraction Watch readers, particularly those who have followed our “unhelpful retraction notices” category. In fact, such notices were one of the reasons we started the blog. Nor will it shock those who have read studies of trends in retractions. But it is important to quantify the phenomenon, which the authors attribute to potential embarrassment and fear of lawsuits.

There was some good news:

An encouraging finding is that our study suggests that retractions and corrections pertaining to articles associated with misconduct are becoming more honest and transparent over time. Within the timeframe studied, the proportion of retractions and corrections that mentioned ethics was significantly higher in recent years than in earlier years, as was the proportion that named a specific problem.

The authors note some limitations of their study, in particular the highly specific dataset. They also suggest that the ORI could

take legal action against researchers who do not honour an agreement to retract or correct an article associated with an official finding of misconduct. If an individual has been debarred for 5 years, ORI could make debarment indefinite if the individual does not make a good faith effort to honour the agreement.

An interesting idea.

Part of the paper’s discussion is a passage that strongly resonates with what we’ve been saying at Retraction Watch:

…one could argue that authors should fully explain why an article is being retracted or corrected, especially when misconduct by at least one of the authors is involved. Honesty and transparency require scientists to tell the whole truth when retracting or correcting an article, so that others can evaluate their work and decide whether parts of the research unaffected by misconduct can be trusted and whether any of the coauthors are at fault.

20 thoughts on “Surprise, surprise: Study says retraction notices often aren’t honest about misconduct”

  1. Well, indeed it’s no surprise, especially given the sample set. Would the ORI pass a verdict of ‘not guilty’ if the author under investigation has already confessed to misconduct in a retraction notice? I doubt it.

    In this light, I wonder how honest are the retraction notices of papers retracted prior to the ORI verdict (basically the ones that trigger an investigation) versus those that, at the time of the verdict, had not been retracted yet? Actually this might be one of the causes for the significant improvement in honesty over time.

    Since the article is behind a paywall, I can’t tell whether these questions have already been answered…

  2. ORI should be outsourced from PHS to an independent agency with the mission of correct and honest disclosure. I know from personal experience that ORI is a sham and a waste of the taxpayer’s money.

  3. Please explain your self Ed. What personal experience do you have with ORI? How exactly is it a sham. It is my understanding that they actually save taxpayer money.

    1. Sam, No they don’t save the taxpayer money because they (John Dahlberg/ Donald Wright)
      don’t do their job. Four years ago I submitted a request for an investigation into a hip potector conducted by harvard professor douglas kiel that was a slam dunk for falsification(you can google “douglas kiel, hip protector, harvard” to see more.But,
      after back and forth communications was told that ORI can choose not to investigate
      without providing any explanation. In other words they don’t have to follow their own rules. Later the same request was made of OHRP and they found that the investigators
      supressed data from the IRB and DSMB. The supressed data related to subjects harm
      and falsity of the article published in JAMA. You can see this on the OHRP web site.

      1. No, Sam, You didn’t do your homework (as presented in my post). You display
        what is the root cause of much of the problem: uninformed opinion and political bias.

  4. ORI’s rules state that that the motives of the complainant have no bearing in a
    request for investigation—-only the evidence!!!!!!!

  5. It sounds to me like ORI determined after reviewing the actual evidence that this was an OHRP issue, one dealing more with IRB protocol issues and human protection and not F/F/P as defined in the 42 CFR part 93 to which they are bound. Perhaps you should take on some homework.

    1. no, they did not want to do their job is what they told me. Omitted data that strikes to the heat the validity of a study design and published conclusions is falsification
      period! You can see that in 42 CFR part 93–if you read it carefully.

    2. see OHRP findings: :
      [ Failure to inform the IRB and DSMB, and subjects, about first trials result]

      Dr. Goodwin’s company sued the P.I. in 2008:
      HipSaver Inc. of Canton, which makes hip protectors, filed a suit in Norfolk Superior Court Feb. 15 alleging that Kiel knowingly tested an inferior product and produced results that placed its version in a poor light. A story on the suit appeared in yesterday’s Harvard Crimson. “It would have been more appropriate and scientifically accurate for Dr. Kiel to limit his conclusions to the specific hip protector that he studied,” HipSaver president Edward L. Goodwin said in a statement. “As it stands, his JAMA-published conclusions have wrongfully damaged the entire field of hip protection, including the HipSaver brand.”

  6. In reply to Ed Goodwin, September 5, 2012 at10:15 am

    Totally agree with you!

    To everybody else:
    Please note that ORI investigates only misconduct related to grants which are 100 % from DHHS. I spoke by phone with them and they told me that they do not investigate cases where funding is mixed, for example, if part of the funding is from NASA.

    See here

    This means that a fraudster (remember that these are intelligent guys) can practically get immunity by involving some funds from somewhere else!

    1. Thank you, YouknowBestOfAll, The funding for the study that was the basis for my request was totally
      from the NIA (ie not mixed). What is lacking in the arm chair philosophers is truthseeking and courage.

      1. Considering the amount of public money distributed as grants and the incidence of misconduct, which is per se conspiracy to obtain public money by deception, I have suggested at Retraction Watch that FBI should establish a new department “Academic Fraud”. This new department should investigate ALL cases of academic/publication misconduct and, as minimum, fraudsters and their institutions should pay back ALL public money they got.

    2. I think you are mistaken about ORI. ORI has jurisdiction over cases where any of the research funding is from HHS (or involves applications for HHS funds, most often NIH funds).

      ORI shares jurisdiction with other federal agencies (for example, where NSF funds were involved, and the NSF OIG has authority over misconduct issues).

      1. Is humility the same as courage? Dahlberg/Wright have set the bar so low that one could pick a name from the phone book and get a better job done. They are a disgrace to public service by protecting corrupt
        researchers. We are at the early stage of Nazi style “scientific” research because of these cowards.

  7. The Office of Research Integrirty (ORI) and its dedicated scientists deserve credit for their efforts in pursuing these 208 HHS findihngs of research misconduct in its first two decades, with 127 retractions or corrections published for the 174 questioned papers, studied in Dr. Resnick’s fine paper. No other agency can match this successful effort and public notification (all the ORI findings since 1992 have been pulblished in the NIH Guide and the Federal Register as well as on the ORI website) [the NSF OIG has not published the papers nor the names of the persons in its misconduct findings in its Semi-Annual Reports to Congress].

    In my 17 years in ORI during this period, we always tried to require the respondent to submit an ORI-approved retraction letter to the editor (stating the name of the person whom ORI found to have falsified or fabricated the research, thus clearing the coauthors). We also notified the editor of our findings and our requirement for the retraction letter (and we offered to provide the editor with details on the findings, so that the editor could pursue retractions himself/herself if the respondent failed to comply — some editors did so).

    Unfortunately, some editors and senior authors refused to wait for ORI’s findings, so the retraction notices were published without naming the party responsible for the misconduct (leaving the coauthors “guilty by association” and unsure how to list, or not, or to explain, such retracted papers on their CVs and job applications) — or the senior author stated that there were “errors” (as Dr. Resnick noted) or that the research was “not reproducible” (a euphemism for “fraudulent”). Indeed, when I surveyed all of the retractions published in PubMed/Medline from 1980-2005, I could identify from my federal and news source knowledge almost 70% of them as being “research misconduct” cases (even when not so labeled in the retracttion notice).

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