A publisher wants to destigmatize retractions. Here’s how.

Erica Boxheimer

It’s no secret that retractions have a stigma, which is very likely part of why authors often resist the move — even when honest error is involved. There have been at least a few proposals to change the nomenclature for some retractions over the years, from turning them into “amendments” to a new taxonomy.

Erica Boxheimer, data integrity analyst at EMBO Press, and Bernd Pulverer, chief editor of The EMBO Journal and head of scientific publications for the Press, have suggested a related solution, which builds on a 2015 proposal:

We proposed to use the term “withdrawal” instead of the canonical “retraction” for an author‐initiated retraction based on “honest mistakes”. We are now using the terms “retraction” and “withdrawal” as formally distinct content types across EMBO Press in the hope that “withdrawal” attracts less stigma and encourages self‐correction. 

As they note in an editorial in the journal last month:

In a move to add transparency in a more systematic manner, we have begun trialing a “process file” for corrections—similar to the “review process files” on our published papers, which capture the review and editorial process at the journal—for corrigenda and retractions. 

Here’s one such “process file.” We asked Pulverer and Boxheimer to describe how the approach would work.

Retraction Watch (RW): How will you distinguish whether a researcher has voluntarily withdrawn a paper, or has had that that decision made a condition of some agreement with his or her employer/funder/etc.?

Bernd Pulverer and Erica Boxheimer (BP and EB): We conduct the same type of internal investigation for all correction requests, regardless of whether it is a wish to correct, withdraw, or retract. For ’serious’ (defined by us on our internal scale as ‘level2’) cases we also get in touch with the research institution. We usually get some picture of the history of a specific case by taking into account the authors communication and institutional statements. For a ‘withdrawal’ we also expect the authors to take the initiative to approach us first, even if the issues were uncovered outside the lab – for example on PubPeer (NB: our rare ‘level 3’ cases would not usually be appropriate for ‘withdrawal’ as they will include intentional, serious data/image manipulation, often with evidence of intent to mislead.)

Bernd Pulverer

RW: Will you require authors who withdraw papers to describe in a withdrawal notice how they came to learn of the errors?

BP and EB: We have a policy to be as transparent as we can and certainly encourage that. In cases where a concerned reader writes in and uncovers important issues that are then corrected, we point to this. For example, we will shortly publish a correspondence in EMBO Reports pointing to serious data analysis issues, alongside a resulting corrigendum by the authors. Transparency is important for the interested reader to understand the nature of the issues and to make their own judgement – the name of the corrective statement is merely a headline that sets the scene.

RW: Will authors who have committed misconduct be allowed to withdraw, instead of having papers retracted?

BP and EB: Withdrawals are meant to be a positive initiative to address an issue that you first highlighted quite rightly: why are so few paper retracted and why is self-correction so rare? It is at least partially because the label ‘retraction’ is immediately connected with misbehaviour and a fear of career disadvantage. We would love to reach a point where research assessment will actually value self-correction for the right reasons as a positive attribute. We’re trying to support such a culture.We do indeed want to use the term ‘withdrawal’ for the self-correction of ‘honest mistakes’ and reproducibility issues that arise as a normal, healthy part of scientific advance.

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3 thoughts on “A publisher wants to destigmatize retractions. Here’s how.”

  1. “We proposed to use the term “withdrawal” instead of the canonical “retraction” for an author‐initiated retraction based on “honest mistakes”. We are now using the terms “retraction” and “withdrawal” as formally distinct content types across EMBO Press in the hope that “withdrawal” attracts less stigma and encourages self‐correction. ”

    J Biol Chem uses the term “withdrawal” for retractions.

    Isn’t withdrawl from a Germanic root and retraction from Latin root?

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