For problematic papers, don’t retract or correct, say publishing experts: Amend

A group of publishing experts have proposed a somewhat radical idea: Instead of retracting papers, or issuing corrections that address problems, authors should amend published articles. Here’s how it would work – any post-publication changes would be added as amendments labeled “insubstantial,” “substantial,” or “complete” (equivalent to a retraction). Is this a better way? We spoke with authors of a preprint in BioRxivVirginia Barbour, chair of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE); Theodora Bloom, executive editor of The BMJ; Jennifer Lin, director of product management at Crossref; and Elizabeth Moylan, senior editor of research integrity at BioMed Central.

Retraction Watch: Why do you think it’s a good idea to amend articles, rather than issue formal retractions or corrections?

Authors: We think there are two main issues that mean the current types of correction and retraction don’t serve the scientific community well.

First, the distinction between the two is not always a clear boundary, and there is such stigma associated with the word ‘retraction’ that time is wasted arguing about whether something should be corrected or retracted. Even ‘correction’ implies there was something wrong before, rather than that a point is being added to, or in some way reframed. So, all in all we felt it would be better to have a single neutral term to describe changes to an article after it is published.

Secondly, with the current system, when the largest changes are needed — retraction — the publisher and author often have to wait a long time before making any change to the article, awaiting the outcome of misconduct investigations that can take years to complete. We would like to see a system in which changes can be made rapidly, and to us that means separating the making of changes from determining fault or blame.

Note, there is nothing less “formal” about the process we are proposing — we just want to make the formal process something that uses the technology we now have, and which also addresses the “social” problems we see that lead to corrections or retractions not happening quickly enough. Editors frequently experience situations where a published article needs to be corrected quickly but is delayed due to procedural reasons.

RW: Do you think amendments will help people accept the idea of editorial changes, and not avoid correcting the literature because it can feel like a form of punishment?

Authors: That is the aim, yes. The reason we recommend separating the issues of what went wrong from why they went wrong is first to update the literature efficiently. If misconduct or fraud has occurred this should be reported on, but it can be a separate, distinct activity — especially if it will take time.

The idea we would like to suggest is a switch to thinking that it is good to amend articles post publication, not that any change has to be viewed negatively — which is the situation now. But to be clear, we are not suggesting that misconduct is OK or should not be sanctioned, only that amending the literature should not have to wait for those sanctions — so it can happen sooner. Any misconduct findings should then be tied to the article after it has already been amended.

RW: What are the main criticisms you’ve heard about the idea of amendments, and how do you respond?

Authors: Many people seem to be wedded to retraction as punishment whereas we feel strongly that editors are responsible for the integrity of the literature, and this is separate from any investigation into potential misconduct. And as Retraction Watch has prominently noted, there is a subset of retractions that are wholly honorable: Why tarnish them with a stigmatized term that to many denotes misconduct? Of course investigations need to happen but these are for institutions to undertake. There seems to have been misunderstanding that we don’t think investigations and reporting of misconduct need to happen. Of course we do – it’s that we think these need to be distinct, though equally important, processes.

Overall, most of the comments were positive, though there was a wish for more detail. There are one or two questions about the very rare occasion when an article needs to be removed entirely — for example because it is legally or ethically unacceptable (discussed below). And some have questioned whether such a system would be more onerous and too expensive for smaller or less well-funded journals to operate.

RW: Do you think a service like Crossmark – a product by Crossref which lets readers know if content has any updates such as retractions – could help make amendments more visible, or be the mechanism for them? (Note: Lin, one of  the authors of the preprint, is a Crossref employee.)

Authors: Absolutely, yes. Amendments are not always visibly marked on the publisher’s platform. Having a consistent display of the publication status, which contains the amendment link, is what Crossmark offers human readers. Perhaps the bigger impact is that systems beyond the publisher platform can also access the updates. (Crossmark data is freely available to all through the Crossref REST API.) Commonly used indexing services, discovery platforms, recommendation engines, etc., can programmatically access and apply the update to their platforms and delivery channels. Another powerful possibility is having publisher automatically flag these in their reference lists whenever their publications cite an article that has an update. The infrastructure technology is in place for systems across the research ecosystem. But we need to have publishers provide the updates and systems to access and apply it where appropriate in their services.

RW: Sometimes editorial notices are woefully sparse. How would amendments affect what notices say? Would notices now provide more information, or less?

Authors: It would provide information relevant to the amendment and be factually relevant to why an update was needed. If an investigation was necessary any relevant information could be linked to the article later. For us, the key difference is that amendments could happen faster to ensure the integrity of the published literature. We completely agree that as much detail as possible should be included in amendments for the content changes and in any notice that outlines the reasons.

RW: Do you know of any journals which plan on implementing amendments in the near future? Is it something COPE will formally recommend?

Authors: For our proposal to bring about truly transformational change it needs widespread buy-in and adoption rather than individual journals coming up with unique solutions. For that to happen the communities and stakeholders involved will need to have time for discussion and debate.

This is not formal — or even informal — COPE guidance, and it would need to be discussed further for that to become the case. However, in the sense that COPE has always supported corrections (amendments) to the literature to ensure its integrity and not to punish authors, it fully fits the ethos of COPE.

RW: Are there any circumstances in which amendments won’t suffice? Meaning, even if the amendment system has been adopted by journals, would a paper ever still need to have a formal retraction or correction notice?

Authors: We envisage the amendment system replacing correction and retraction notices, so we do think that you wouldn’t need to have both an amendment and a correction or retraction. There seems to be a perception that it’s desirable to remove articles entirely from the published record. We accept for sure that in some rare cases the definitive version should not be public any more, but in the vast majority of cases we believe there should be a clear trail explaining what has happened to the article and why. We do think it is important that the DOI and related systems always take the user to the most up to date record — for example the notice that an article has been withdrawn — rather than the current system of citation that defaults readers to the first published version (even if it has been ‘retracted’). But bearing in mind that digital traces of articles may remain in all sorts of places, we think our proposal would nevertheless be an improvement over the current scenario when virtually all retracted records are in fact still available and a reader needs to take care to notice that the article is retracted.

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8 thoughts on “For problematic papers, don’t retract or correct, say publishing experts: Amend”

  1. Implementing the amendment system is a good idea when used to correct spelling mistakes, citation errors, i.e., benign mistakes. But it should not replace retractions in cases of fabrication, falsification and plagiarism, that is , research misconduct, fatal data errors and invalid conclusions.

    1. I wholeheartedly agree. “Benign” meaning inadvertent is the operative idea. Everything else is “premeditated” and meant to mislead if not deceive, IMHO.

  2. I’m reminded of Cerf and Beard’s “Politically Correct Dictionary and Handbook”, where a serial killer is a “person with difficult-to-meet needs”. Nasty pejorative terms such as “set of fraudulent research articles” can be replaced with the much nicer “multiple emerging opportunities to enhance the scientific record through complete amendment”. Kumbaya.

  3. So the solution to the confusion between the true meaning of retraction, correction, corrigendum, erratum, and withdrawal is… to create another term (amendment)?

  4. I’m having trouble imagining what this would look like in the cases of articles that are entirely without merit. ‘Research’ articles built entirely on fabricated/manipulated data, or utterly inappropriate methods are few and far between, but in such cases, what can an amendment do to remedy the situation? What about wholesale plagiarism – would the amendment include re-attributing authorship?

  5. What percentage of the data in a paper has to be bunk, before retracting the whole thing? I lean to the low end of the spectrum (if one figure is fake then the rest of the paper simply cannot be trusted). Interestingly, most journals I review for have a similar attitude at the peer review stage – any fake data at all means instant rejection. At the other end are the mega-correctionists, who are happy saying that correction of several figures “does not change the conclusions”. This proposal for ammendments seems to be at the permissive end of the spectrum, and gives authors yet another get-out option when when asked to retract. I’m not convinced that empowering authors to resist retractions is necessarily a good thing. If not very carefuly policed (and let’s be honest, we’re not doing a very good job policing the existing system), this could lead to more dodgy science remaining on the books.

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