A two-year drama: The anatomy of a retraction request

Michael Dougherty

For more than a decade, I have been working with colleagues to request retractions from editors and publishers for plagiarizing articles, mostly in my discipline of philosophy and related fields. But almost two years ago I requested a retraction from a seismology journal. Since I have no training in the science of earthquakes, how did I get involved?

In June 2017 I read an article on Retraction Watch, “Plagiarism costs author five papers in five different journals” involving a researcher in civil engineering. The unrelated subject matters represented by each of the journals surprised me, as they involved refugee studies, educational philosophy, disaster medicine, and life quality studies. These are important disciplines, but they are not obviously related to each other, nor to civil engineering. 

A year later I wondered whether any more retractions had appeared for that same researcher, and I came across an unretracted 2011 article by that researcher in the journal Earthquake Science.  After two minutes of online searching I discovered it was a near-identical copy of a 2002 article by different authors in the Elsevier journal Engineering Structures. My lack of training in seismology was not an impediment to making this determination; the only major differences between the two articles were the titles and the authors of record. (The detailed tables, figures, photos, data visualizations, and paragraphs were identical but for minor elements.)

But who am I—a philosophy professor—to judge articles in the science of earthquakes? I sought external confirmation by consulting with my young grade-school daughter (who also lacks degrees in seismology). Upon seeing the two articles, she rendered the same verdict: “Daddy, these two are the same.”

Surely, I thought, this case would be among the easiest of my retraction-seeking side-career. This case was not like those other complex ones involving subtle compression plagiarism or translation plagiarism. It was literal copy-and-paste plagiarism of the simplest variety. In composing my email retraction request to the publisher, I included a link to the Retraction Watch story as background and attached PDF copies of the plagiarizing article and its source text, indicating the identity with yellow highlighting on every line of 2011 article. 

On August 20, 2018, at 1:19 PM, I sent the retraction request, which set the stage for a nearly two-year-long drama that would feature an unnecessarily large cast of characters and only a partial denouement.

Initially things looked to be auspicious. Within 15 minutes of sending my retraction request I received a reply from a publishing editor (Enter Editor #1). He explained that they “take issues of plagiarism very seriously” and “will look into the issue shortly.” Copied on the email was another editor (Enter Editor #2).

I understand from experience that investigations take time. I have advised other publishers and editors about particular plagiarism cases over the years, so I have seen the process from the inside. But this case seemed so straightforward that after two months of waiting I requested an update from Editor #1, who responded a couple of days later saying the matter is being investigated and that the journal editors would be contacted again for an update. Then a few days later (29 October 2018) Editor #2 wrote with what seemed like excellent news, stating, “The journal editors have approved the retraction. I’ll update you on any further developments.” Copied on that email was another editor (Enter Editor #3). 

But then email silence followed. Around that time I posted about the case on PubPeer.

A couple of months later (mid-February 2019) I wrote to Editor #2 to ask when the previously mentioned retraction might appear. Within two minutes I received a reply, with a promise to “look into this.”

Then four months of silence. 

Winter turned into summer. In June, I wrote to Editor #2 again, mentioning casually that “I noticed that the article hasn’t been retracted yet. Might you be able to solve this? I’m grateful for any help you can offer.” Three minutes later, I received an almost identical email from the previous year, promising to “look into this.”

The next day things seemed promising. On 20 June 2019, Editor #2 wrote and explained that a “watermarking PDF has been sent to the Editor-in-Chief to confirm, it should complete soon.” The email also noted that the publisher had ceased publishing Earthquake Studies in 2018. The email ended with the request that “in future follow ups about this issue” I should no longer contact Editor #2, but rather his colleague (Enter Editor #4). Exeunt Editor #1, Editor #2, and Editor #3. 

Ten months of email silence followed. Of course during this time I was doing other things related to plagiarism, including continuing work on more than 50 retraction requests with colleagues for two cases that turned out to be situations of extensive serial plagiarism

In late April 2020, I began the process—the one started back in August 2018—anew with Editor #4. I sent along my original marked-up PDF showing the plagiarism in the 2011 article along with the 2002 source article. I included copies of ten principal emails from my correspondence involving Editors #1–3, and I asked to have the matter settled. 

A month later I received a reply from Editor #4, saying she had taken up my request with a colleague who deals with research integrity matters at the publisher, and that “specific steps are under discussion.” She also apologized for the delays. A week and a half later May 30, 2020, Editor #4 wrote to say “the production team is still working on this.” 

This brings us to this month, June 2020. I recently looked up the 2011 article on the publisher’s website, and there was the retraction in all its retracted glory. The PDF of the article had been modified with a diagonal “RETRACTED ARTICLE” watermark on each page. The article webpage now featured a retraction statement explaining that the article “contains substantial overlap with another publication” and then gave a bibliographical reference to the 2002 source text I had identified. The retraction statement also added that “The author has not responded to any correspondence from the publisher about this retraction.”

Exit Publisher #1.

So, after 22 months, is it time to celebrate a successful correction of the published research literature? Not so fast. I recalled Editor #2’s earlier remark that the journal Earthquake Studies had moved to a new publisher. I looked up the new publisher, and on the new publisher’s website is the very article, now in open access format for all to see, in all its unretracted glory. 

That means it’s time to start the process over again with a new retraction request—for the same article—with Publisher #2. It seems odd to have to work twice to have the same article retracted at the same journal because of a change in publishers. If I am lucky, this second round will take less than 22 months.

The real point of this story is not to complain. The point is this: the process described above is typical for successful retraction requests. The accounts reported by scientific sleuths commonly state that publishers often delay or even ignore submitted reports about suspected fraudulent articles. Recently, Retraction Watch co-founder Ivan Oransky wrote in Gaming The Metrics that “it is incredibly hard to get papers retracted from the literature, or even corrected or noted in some way.” I agree.

But I am not aggrieved: my alternate fantasy job would be to work for publishers as a research integrity officer to improve the body of published literature from the other side. It is not hard to imagine a system where evidence of scientific and publishing malpractice is examined judiciously and expeditiously, and where published corrections of the scholarly record are clear, issued without delay, devoid of all euphemisms, and causally explanatory so that researchers know what exactly is wrong with the defective articles. 

If such a vision seems too idealistic, consider this: those of us on this side who are working to secure corrections from editors and publishers are doing so now, on our own time, for free, under incredible pressures, and with full-time jobs. There is no lack of effort on our part to find solutions for a more reliable body of published research literature. 

Let’s all get to work.

Michael Dougherty is Professor & Sr. Ruth Caspar Chair in Philosophy at Ohio Dominican University and the author of Correcting the Scholarly Record for Research Integrity: In the Aftermath of Plagiarism.

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4 thoughts on “A two-year drama: The anatomy of a retraction request”

  1. Thank you for your efforts and commitment to scientific integrity. It is disheartening that even straightforward cases like this take so much time, when I doubt it took the journal even a fraction of this time to “vet” the paper in the first place!

  2. In a case as flagrant as this, the original (disjoint!) set of authors whose text and figures have been plagiarized surely have a legal cause of action—don’t they? In any case, they (and their fostering institutions, and perhaps professional organizations in the relevant disciplines) should be very eager to participate in the process of retraction and apology (and perhaps concrete reparations of some sort). Professor Dougherty, in the cases you have dealt with, have any of my concerns ever been addressed (or even brought up)?

  3. This is interesting. Technology provide to check plagiarism and I would think.that every journal should run the manuscript for plagiarism even before it goes to reviewers. Then after the retraction, it appears again on open access does impact negatively on reliability of open access.

    This is a simple case where any replicable research is not needed.
    Thanks for sharing this information, it gives another angle of scientific publications

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