When researchers from a particular country dominate retraction statistics, what does it mean?

Iekuni Ichikawa

The Retraction Watch Leaderboard of authors with the most retractions is a frequent source of comment and speculation. Why do only men appear on it? And what fields and countries are represented? Here, Iekuni IchikawaProject Professor at Shinshu University and Emeritus Professor of Pediatrics at Vanderbilt University, as well as a co-founder of the Association for the Promotion of Research Integrity (APRIN) in Japan, takes a look at a recent story that referenced our leaderboard — and what those figures really mean.

The authors of Retraction Watch often take pains to point out that the relative rarity of retractions — despite dramatic increases in their rates — make studying them a challenge. But it is often difficult to resist seeking out truth in retraction numbers.

As a case in point, in August Science published an article by Kai Kupferschmidt about research misconduct in Japan that quoted data from the Retraction Watch Leaderboard, pointing that out that although “half of the top 10 are Japanese researchers…only about 5% of published research comes from Japan.”

That quote could be taken to suggest that researchers in Japan are more misconduct-prone than average. But I think the data suggest an alternative explanation: That statistics for published paper retraction, in general, reflect how vigorously institutions investigate research  for errors, honest or dishonest. The same might well be said of the reasons why journals with high impact factors tend to have higher retraction rates: Those that receive a high level of attention, hence scrutiny, will seem to have more errors. It’s also analogous to the reports of medical error from hospitals, namely, the statistics may reflect more of a willingness to disclose the information than the rate of actual error.

In a recent nationwide survey of all 1,117 colleges and universities in Japan, the Japanese government asked how ready institutions were  to deal with whistleblowing. The results revealed that the size of resources of an institution, in terms of faculty body, administrative staff and budget, is a determinant of an institution’s readiness.  Not surprisingly, all of the institutions of the researchers on the Retraction Watch Leaderboard, are on the high end when it comes to resources.

From my extensive personal experience serving as a member of misconduct investigation committees, both funding agencies and institutions mandate that committees investigate not just the papers initially flagged as potentially problematic, but that investigators often look deep into publications during early stages of a research career.  In the case of Haruko Obokata of the STAP cell scandal, investigations led to the revoking of her PhD based on plagiarism found in her thesis. 

I am writing this alternative interpretation of the statistics quoted in the Science article  because I am concerned that the article alone may prompt institutions in Japan and other countries to limit the scope of their misconduct investigations, given that they are always in conflict between their public duty and the protection of an institution’s image. I believe this possibility is critical because the willingness of disclosure by research institutions is paramount to the success of Retraction Watch in serving the public.

I’ll end with a quotation from a statement made nearly 20 years ago in the Institute of Medicine’s To Err Is Human, about medical error reports:

Reporting systems … ensure a response to specific reports of serious injury, hold organizations and providers accountable for maintaining safety, respond to the public’s right to know, and provide incentives to health care organizations to implement internal safety systems that reduce the likelihood of such events occurring.

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One thought on “When researchers from a particular country dominate retraction statistics, what does it mean?”

  1. “That statistics for published paper retraction, in general, reflect how vigorously institutions investigate research for errors, honest or dishonest.”

    From reading many posts about Japan at Retraction Watch that does seem to be a good explanation. You get the impression that once the Japanese institutions (people in those institutions) figure out that there the data are problematic they do something about it.

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