Nature, as we and others have noticed, has had what Paul Knoepfler referred to as a “torrent” of retractions in the past two years. That torrent — 13 research papers — has prompted a welcome and soul-searching editorial, as it did in 2010 when the journal had what it called an “unusually large number” of 4.
As the editors write this week in “Retraction challenges:”
For years, with occasional exceptions, Nature’s annual number of research-paper retractions tended to average around one or two. But over the past two years, we have seen a considerable rise — six in 2013, and seven, so far, in 2014. We have reviewed these and previous retractions and would like to make some observations on the basis of their content and on the experiences of publishing them.
We thought it would be useful to unpack some of the claims in the editorial. First:
A high proportion of Nature’s retractions in recent years have come about through honest error, where authors have either discovered mistakes themselves after publication, or have had the errors brought to their attention and taken action.
The last 13 retractions of research papers from Nature — those that happened in 2013 or so far in 2014 — certainly involved cases of honest error and commendable conduct. But they also involved six cases in which there was fraud: STAP stem cells (2), Dhonukshe (2), Bezouska, and Kato. Even if the other seven resulted from honest error, “high proportion” is basically just over half — unless, of course “have had the errors brought to their attention and taken action” includes cases in which an investigation has found evidence of misconduct. That’s not a particularly robust definition of “honest error.”
Another observation is that negotiating some retractions can involve unavoidable delays of years because of some combination of the complexity of the science, disputes between co-authors, the need to await outcomes of lengthy investigations, and disputes over these proceedings. Journal editors have neither the authority nor the means to police authors or their institutions, and can be dependent on proceedings whose details are confidential to institutions. They also need to be sensitive to the interests of blameless co-authors.
We would argue that journals like Nature actually have a tremendous amount of power. If Nature thinks that they “have neither the authority nor the means to police authors or their institutions,” the editors should sit down with Anesthesia & Analgesia editor in chief Steven Shafer, who gathered a consortium of journal editors that held institutions’ feet to the fire and led to retractions in the Joachim Boldt and Yoshitaka Fujii cases. One can only imagine how quickly a dean would return a call from Nature.
And why not issue an expression of concern about papers during those years while it’s being investigated? How does Nature justify, for example, leaving the dance symmetry paper in the literature for for five years after authors requested a retraction? Unless, of course, you’re worried about losing those citations, the first two years of which will count toward your impact factor.
Even when an institution and a journal both want a retraction, their interests in doing so may collide. An institution might be bound by confidentiality agreements and therefore unable to release the results of its scientific investigations, leaving editors in the dark as to the circumstances behind erroneous work. An institution may also wish the wording of the retraction to bolster its case against a wrong-doer, whereas a journal’s interest is to avoid lengthy disputes, push the paper into oblivion, and avoid further wasted effort by researchers. Whether for that reason or, occasionally, for legal reasons, we have concluded that we cannot usually use retraction statements as a means of highlighting wrong-doing.
We’ve dealt with these “confidentiality agreements” before. Institutions are only bound by them because they want to be. (See second half of this post.) Why don’t journals — using the power they really do have — advocate for more transparency, and for universities to rid themselves of these agreements? If Nature feels that it “cannot usually use retraction statements as a means of highlighting wrong-doing,” then it takes as much responsibility as close-mouthed universities for allowing researchers guilty of fraud to move from position to position with impunity while others fight for grants.
But it’s the numerous references to “legal”(4) and “lawyers” (1) that seem to tell the real story here:
…the concerned should also pay attention to what must be increasing costs in legal fees, because those under investigation increasingly turn to lawyers to defend themselves and their reputations, and their employers and journals are more frequently having to respond accordingly. But whatever the obstacles, the duty to retract a demonstrably false paper remains paramount.
We noticed the same thing in an editorial at Nature‘s sister journal, Nature Medicine, last year. Now, we know that libel laws are different in the UK, and the journal wants to avoid the kind of long, painful, and expensive case it had to fight — and win — in 2012. Nature would like to see UK libel laws reformed as much as anyone, so that truth can prevail. We wholeheartedly agree with their position. But in the meantime, we hope that the message of this editorial is that even if it is costly and draining, Nature will fight scientific fraudsters who threaten to sue them for telling the truth — not back down as soon as a scientist “lawyers up.”
Here’s one line with which we can’t argue:
Where authors make it clear that nothing more than an honest error was involved, their retraction should bring them credit.