If you think you’ve noticed more and more retractions at PLoS ONE recently, you’re not wrong.
The journal retracted 53 papers last year. That’s not a record — that belongs to a journal that retracted more than 400 papers at once — nor is it that many more than the Journal of Biological Chemistry, which retracted 39 last year. And it’s only about 3% of the year’s retractions. But it’s a dramatic increase, as this graphic shows:
Based on the 22 retractions so far in 2019, PLoS ONE is on track to retract more than 60 papers this year. In the words of the pseudonymous Claire Francis, whose comments at PubPeer have been responsible for highlighting problems that led to some of the retractions, PLoS ONE is becoming a “major retraction engine.”
So what explains the jump? Best we can tell, there are two significant — and related — factors.
The first is Elisabeth “Eagle Eyes” Bik, a scientist formerly based at Stanford and now working as consultant in scientific integrity. Several years ago, she reviewed more than 20,000 papers for evidence of manipulated images. She and her colleagues found that about 4% of those papers appeared to contain inappropriate duplication.
Nearly 40% of the papers she reviewed were in PLoS ONE, Bik tells Retraction Watch, because it was an easy journal to screen. (It’s open access, as the title suggests.) So it makes sense that roughly the same percentage — 348 of 782, or 44.5% — of the tainted articles were in the journal:
I reported most of these cases to PLOS ONE between March 2014 and October 2015. So that means that their staff suddenly had to deal with almost 350 investigations, which is an enormous task for a small team that probably never had to deal with more than 1 or 2 cases at the same time. They have been slow to follow up on these cases, but I have indeed recently gotten an increase in responses about papers that I had reported, and that are now being corrected or retracted.
Bik sent us the DOIs of the 348 papers, and 22 of them have been retracted, and one has been subjected to an expression of concern, according to a check of our database. And 55 have been corrected in some way.
Reviewing all of those papers requires resources at PLOS. Last year, as we reported, the publisher hired three new staff members to do just that, as well as other research integrity tasks. The move is one that a number of journals have made as they realize that the growing awareness of problems in the literature means more and more allegations will likely come.
In comments to Retraction Watch, PLoS ONE confirmed our hunch about what was responsible for the increase:
PLOS ONE has always been committed to high standards of research reporting and we take various approaches to identify and address publication ethics concerns. As explained in our recent blog post, we have devoted more resources to research integrity in recent years, and last year formed an Editorial team dedicated to Publication Ethics. The increase in the number of retractions we posted in 2018-2019 as compared to previous years reflects this shift in journal resources, which has enabled us to more efficiently address concerns and resolve a number of older cases. Notably, the recent increase in the number of retractions reflects the volume and timing of case resolutions in 2018-2019; it does not indicate a change in the percentage of articles published per year for which post-publication concerns have been raised. This percentage has followed a relatively constant trend, with some fluctuation based on reports we receive from readers.
We anticipate that in the near future the number of retractions overall may continue to climb to reflect the Publication Ethics team’s work in resolving pending cases. We are also continuing our recent successful efforts around improving the reproducibility of research reporting through editorial guidelines and policies that aim to proactively address potential issues prior to publication.
We asked Francis for comment. He said:
The patient is doing well.
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