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.