What is article retraction in academic publishing?
Retraction is removing an article from the scientific record at any point after its publication. Retraction is distinct from withdrawal, which occurs prior to publication. Also, in contrast to withdrawal, retractions are visible to the scientific community, as the original papers are typically preserved as part of the publication record.
Reasons for article retraction
Articles can be retracted for a wide range of reasons, all of which can be broadly divided into two categories: honest errors and ethical misconduct.
Honest errors leading to retraction can include things such as unintentionally using incorrect data or an inappropriate or misleading data analysis technique. Another example of an honest error might be unintentional duplicate publication; for example, if an article was accidentally submitted to two different journals by two different co-authors, and this error was only discovered after publication.
Ethical misconduct is a much more common reason for retraction, and is typically identified by someone other than the author(s) of the paper. Examples of intentional misconduct that can lead to retraction include the use of fraudulent data, text plagiarism, or image manipulation. Authorship disputes can also lead to retraction; for example, if individuals were listed as authors on a published manuscript without their involvement or consent.
Another, less well-known, reason for retraction is peer review fraud. In recent years, journals worldwide have become aware of the existence of peer review manipulation networks that work behind the scenes to fraudulently promote the publication of certain scientific papers. These networks function by suggesting peer reviewers to journals upon submission of a paper, supplying fraudulent contact details (that in many cases are similar enough to authentic researchers’ details to appear accurate), and then submitting fraudulent, highly positive peer review reports, typically leading to rapid publication.
Copyright infringement, whether intentional or unintentional, can also be the reason for retraction. For example, if a paper reproduces figures that were previously published in another paper and/or journal without having obtained permission from the original publisher, this is considered a violation of copyright, and could lead to retraction of the paper.
Another interesting cause for retraction is not declaring relevant competing interests. While a competing interest may not always affect the content of a paper, if a journal feels that association with a company, for instance, may have unduly influenced the study, this can be cause for concern; and if this association is not declared, this raises a red flag that is likely to lead to an investigation, and possibly to retraction.
Finally, research ethics violations are a clear motivation for retraction. This generally takes the form of failing to seek and obtain ethical approval for performing a study involving animal and/or human subjects prior to carrying it out. If this is discovered after the paper was published, this is likely to lead to retraction.
Who can request article retraction?
A retraction can be instigated by the paper’s authors or by the journal. In the case of honest error, the request for retraction generally comes from the authors themselves after they have noticed the mistake and wish to correct the publication record. In the latter case, an investigation is typically launched by the journal after having received a complaint from a reader.
In the case of ethical misconduct, the vast majority of retractions are instigated by a journal receiving notification from a reader that something seems wrong about the paper. If the journal finds this claim credible, it will then typically launch an investigation. Journals that belong to the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) will carry out this investigation according to the Committee’s guidelines [pdf] to ensure that it is complete and appropriate, and will consult with the Committee if needed for additional guidance.
What is involved in a retraction?
If the journal decides that, based on its investigation, a retraction is required, it will publish a retraction notice (on its website and/or in print, according to its publication model). According to the COPE guidelines, retraction statements must:
- Clearly relate to the original article by citing the title and linking to the original article
- State the reason for the retraction clearly and objectively, specifying who is retracting the article (e.g. all of the authors, some of the authors, or the journal itself)
- Be published promptly and be freely available to all readers
While the original article generally remains available in order to preserve the publication record, albeit prominently linked to the retraction, in rare cases the original article may be deleted. This would most often be the case with an egregious research ethics violation such as a paper that violated patient privacy.
Alternatives to article retraction
If, during the course of investigation into a paper, a journal uncovers evidence that there may have been misconduct, but is uncertain of the extent, or is unable to obtain adequate information to make an informed decision, an alternative to retraction is to publish an expression of concern. An expression of concern is a statement published on a journal’s website and/or in print that explains why they have opened an investigation into a paper and why they are unable or unwilling to publish a formal retraction at that time. In rare cases an expression of concern may be published during an investigation and later updated to a formal retraction, but generally an expression of concern is reserved for instances in which the journal does not feel that it is likely to be able to satisfactorily complete the investigation.
Another alternative to retraction is publishing a correction to a paper. This alternative is typically reserved for cases of inadvertent error, and is often instigated by the authors themselves when they notice mistakes in their own published paper and approach the journal to amend the situation. Corrections are typically used to correct errors in authorship lists, datasets, and data labels, and again are generally only appropriate when correcting honest mistakes.
How to request article retraction
If you believe that you have identified something in your published article or in someone else’s published article that merits retraction, it is your ethical obligation to contact the journal immediately to express your concerns. We recommend emailing the editor-in-chief of the journal directly and explaining your concern(s) clearly and fully. The following information should be included in your letter:
- The paper’s identifying information (title, authors, publication date)
- Your concern with the paper: what is the error or intentional deception that you believe this article contains?
- Your reasoning: how did you identify or discover this error?
- Any steps you have already taken regarding the issue; for example, if you discovered that one of your co-authors fabricated some of the data included in the paper, have you already reported this to your institution’s ethics committee?
Ideally, the journal will reply to your email immediately to discuss your concerns, and will keep you apprised as to whether they intend to open an investigation and what their ultimate decision is.
Retractions are relatively rare in most researchers’ careers, and hopefully will not affect you personally; however, it is important to understand the circumstances that can lead to retraction and how to interpret retractions that you encounter in others’ work, to help avoid getting into the same situation yourself.
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