Nature, facing “considerable rise” in retractions, blames lawyers for opaque and delayed notices

nature oct coverNature, 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.

19 thoughts on “Nature, facing “considerable rise” in retractions, blames lawyers for opaque and delayed notices”

  1. Has anybody investigated all commonal aspects of the retracted papers? For example were they on average able to generate more press than the average Nature article?

    Also it’s noticeable Nature doesn’t even consider the possibility the editorial practices might need a good review.

  2. That Nature has made so many retractions is pretty bloody incredible when you consider that it is published out of London. UK biomedical journals have not only done nothing about research misconduct, but have actually sat down with the government and agreed a framework, or concordat, for doing nothing about it.

    Of course, UK editors and former editors dine out on their concern for integrity, but then they whimper in agreement with their publishers that peer review and reproducibility are just fine, or that institutions are responsible for ensuring that content is true.

    Meanwhile, they shovel the dough into the coffers of unbelievably profitable publishing conglomerates that will probably only change when News Corporation buys one and fires half the staff.

    1. The UK concordat on research integrity certainly appears to be all fine words and no visible action (so far) — but I’m not sure what journal publishers have got to do with it. I thought it was institutions and funding agencies that signed up to the concordat. Or is this a different concordat you’re referring to, Brian?

    2. @ Brian Deer – Cripes! I like to think that I have criticised NPG in these pages as much as anyone, but that is blunt to the point of being brutal.

      If it may be helpful in the teeniest bit, in the protein structure field, a well known failure by Nature to retract concerns the 2006 fictitious complement C3B structure

      ’Twas spawned from the serially naughty – and soon thereafter to be defunct – Murthy lab in Birmingham, Alabama, as recorded for the Intarwebs here

      Implausibility of the C3B Nature paper was the lead factor that induced the structural biology community to deploy their softwares upon the made up structures emanating from this “laboratory”. Unlike many other experimental fields, the tools available to crystallographers can and do effectively weed out the shysters in their midst. The lucky blighters!

      Not that Nature cares. Even though twelve – yes that is twelve – Murthy structures were retracted (see Wikipedia entry above), the key paper that lead to the exposure of this can of worms was published by Nature and is to this day a part of their “scientific” output.

      By Nature’s inflatable standards, the 2006 paper does, thankfully, have a rather paltry 47 citations (google scholar). One assumes that the structural biology community are working on the principle that enough obscurity will cause these utterly worthless pages to disappear from their literature. By now they know that NPG won’t lift a finger on their behalf.

  3. Unbelievable – an apology of an editorial and really a backward step for the scientific community. The paragraph ending “cannot usually use retraction statements as a means of highlighting wrong-doing” reeks of compromise. Translate – ‘These fraudulent investigators are bad dudes, you know, and have lawyers who sound reeeeeeeeeally bad, man. We’d rather our readers continue to read crap than take on those badass lawyers!’ Fraudulent scientists and the institutions that support them will be popping the champagne corks.

    Why don’t Nature actually have the courage of their original convictions, as worded in their previous editorial, where they spoke with clarity and actually said what SHOULD be done with unreliable work? There is not one recorded case (to my knowledge) of an author or institution successfully suing a journal because of a retraction or expression of concern over an article.

    If Nature were, just once, to actually do what their 2010 editorial and the 2009 COPE guidelines suggest, and rapidly issue an expression of concern when faced with inaction or unacceptable delays from an institution (à la Shafer), or retract a paper that is clearly unreliable despite an institution somehow concluding otherwise (Saleh et al., Poldermans et al.,) it would set an example that could change the whole dynamic of publishing and scientific integrity. Institutions would know that they would be risking major damage to their own reputation by drawing out an investigation over years, or failing to produce a clear conclusion to their investigation.

    I think we all have theories as to why they refuse to act – but in the end the bottom line is that the most high profile scientific journal on the planet has no backbone. It feels almost like a surrender.

    I turned down their recent 42 pound subscription offer for only one reason – I no longer believe that Nature actually care about promoting reliable science. This editorial is more evidence of the same.

    1. Having had 2 run-ins with Nature I can only agree with amw. One case was the outing of Nemeroff’s non-disclosures back in 2003. Bob Rubin and I were dismissed, brushed off, and subjected to stonewalling, obfuscation, and prevarication until we went public in The New York Times. Only then did the editors at Nature get religion and change their policy. Their original posture was one of arrogance: we are Nature and we make the rules! In the second case I pointed out that a retraction was called for but they fought tooth and nail to avoid that.

  4. One only has to search PubPeer for Nature family journals to see the troves of problematic data that remain unaddressed, indicating that the problem is far bigger than the journal would have us believe. I’ve personally experienced huge delays (over a year) in just trying to get “Brief Communications Arising” published in response to poorly executed papers. Even then the final product gets watered down by numerous editorial rounds, to ensure it has no teeth that might call the almighty peer review process into question.

    It’s all a facade. Keep the public believing Nature only publishes quality material at any cost. Cracks are starting to appear in the facade, and this editorial is akin to the little Dutch boy with his thumb in the levee.

  5. Nature isn’t the only journal with mealy-mouthed editors. Please visit my blog if you would like to know more. The editor of the journal Radiation Research told me it would be illegal to retract the papers I questioned. Can anyone quote that law for me? Personally, I believe that the number of papers that have been retracted is just the tip of the iceberg. There probably would be tons more if the journals would stop hiding behind their fear of lawsuits.

  6. So typical of Nature…. But lets be honest: we are the ones who are responsible for the tyranny of glam journals. Everyone envisoned a decade ago (and some daydreamers still do) that the then emerging online open access periodicals are going to usher in a new, less despotic era, and will ultimately end the reign of the mega-impact journals. Apparently it has yet to happen. In fact N/S/C managed to transfer all of their prestige from the paper-based system with remarkable ease. The status quo is undisturbed, and glam journals act like superpowers, deciding what (and who…) is right and wrong, what is cutting edge and what is obsolete, ruthlessly ostracizing those who dare to criticize the system.

    As long as young scientists see that careers skyrocket after a first author Nature paper, [even if its just a mercilessly mutilated and downsized “letter” (usually contaning years of hard work) with the density of a neutron star] things are unlikely to change.

    1. Nature’s editorial says “the duty to retract a demonstrably false paper remains paramount.” If they are true to their word, they will retract any paper they have published that is demonstrably false. Perhaps they would like some help with some suggestions.

    1. The issue of lawyers is not restricted to Nature and Nature Publishing group. And the tough-to-swallow questions being asked of this journal and publisher should equally be posed to Elsevier Ltd., Springer Science + Business Media, Taylor and Francis, Wiley-Blackwell, Informa Health, and others that are emerging as the top-ranking issuers of retraction notices. I guess the key question we want to know is what happens between a claim from a reader, or a request from an author, and the final retraction notice. What steps take place in between? Who exactly is involved? Are lawyers always involved? If yes, at what stage and under what circumstances do they step in? Are lawyers involved in 100% of retraction notices? How much say do they have in the actual wording? This is vital since very recently RW was asking two extremely pertinent questions: 1) “What should an ideal retraction look like?” [1], and 2) “Is it time for a retraction penalty?” [2].


  7. Time to change the mechanism of publication, from submission, peer review and editorial handling. The current mechanism is out dated……………….peer review often biased (for or against) and the editorial handling is usually non-existent (unless an author complains). Scientific publishing is big business (and it costs big to publish) but the whole submission/review process is amateurish

  8. How sad that the only thing these days that matters is not truth but fear of lawsuits. Nature has no stones at all, and they have been sitting on retractions for years in some cases. Meanwhile, others waste time and money trying to reproduce or build upon the results.

  9. There is even a case which is almost too absurd to believe. In 2008 a paper was published in the Springer Journal “International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health” which allegedly showed damaging effects of mobile phone electromagnetic fields on DNA integrity. Later it turned out that a technician had faked all data, and that she had noted in her lab book which samples were exposed, and which were sham-exposed (in a ‘blind’ experiment …). What did the editors of that Journal do? They published an Expression of Concern. Only. But what it contains is really funny: “The editors of IAOEH wish to express their doubts about the results reported in the paper by Schwarz et al. (2008) in this EXPRESSION OF CONCERN and to apologize to the readers of IAOEH for publishing this paper.”
    But they didn’t retract that paper ….

  10. I just looked up the link to the dance symmetry paper highlighted and what surprises me is that the retraction text is not with the abstract. You have to click on the retraction notice link. This means that it is not spelled out clearly, that there are serious concerns with the validity of this work. The retraction notice needs to be, a as Douglas Adams would put it, in 13 mile high letters before the paper, so that people know of these concerns.

    It almost feels like Nature is not prepared to admit that this study has been retracted due to serious concerns by all but one of the papers authors.

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