The title of this post is the headline of our most recent column in LabTimes, which begins:
As we write this in mid-August, Nature has already retracted seven papers in 2014. That’s not yet a record – for that, you’d have to go back to 2003’s ten retractions, in the midst of the Jan Hendrik Schön fiasco – but if you add up all of the citations to those seven papers, the figure is in excess of 500.
That’s an average of more than 70 citations per paper. What effect would removing those citations from calculations of Nature’s impact factor – currently 42 – have?
Science would lose 197 citations based on this year’s two retractions. And Cell would lose 315 citations to two now-retracted papers.
In other words, what if journals were penalised for retractions, putting their money where their mouth is when they talk about how good their peer review is? Clearly, if a paper is retracted, no matter what excuses journals make, peer review didn’t work as well as it could have.
We explore what this might mean for top journals. But there are some nuances here. We wouldn’t want to further discourage retractions of papers that deserved it. One solution:
Journals might also get points for raising awareness of their retractions, in the hope that authors wouldn’t continue to cite such papers as if they’d never been withdrawn – an alarming phenomenon that John Budd and colleagues have quantified and that seems to echo the 1930s U.S. Works Progress Administration employees, being paid to build something that another crew is paid to tear down. After all, if those citations don’t count toward the impact factor, journals wouldn’t have an incentive to let them slide.
We also highlight a paper whose title included “retraction penalty.”
So back to our question: Is it time for a retraction penalty? And if so, how would it work?