Retractions and Corrections From Scientific Misconduct

An interesting article appears in the Journal of Medical Ethics, January 2013, vol. 39, pp. 46-50, titled “Scientific retractions and corrections related to misconduct findings,” by David B Resnik and Gregg E Dinse. The authors explored 208 closed cases involving official findings of research misconduct published by the U.S. Office of Research Integrity from 1992 to 2011 in order to determine how often scientists mention in a retraction or correction notice that there was an ethical problem with the article.

The issue of fraudulent articles appear in the scientific literature is a problem as many articles and the data within them can be falsified. See for example Industry Bias in Biomedical Science and The Right to Health and Information. The authors mention that typically when a retraction or correction is made to an article they are usually electronically linked to the original article so that others can be aware. The authors mention the blog RetractionWatch which keeps an eye on retractions and corrections to articles http://retractionwatch.wordpress.com/.

The authors state

“The main objective of our study was to determine, among retractions or corrections of articles affected by misconduct, how frequently scientists mention ethics or describe a specific ethical problem such as fabrication, falsification or plagiarism. A secondary objective was to determine whether the proportion of scientists being forthcoming about ethical problems varies with the type of misconduct (fabrication, falsification or plagiarism), the type of description (retraction or correction), the journal’s impact factor or the calendar time period (year of publication of the retraction or correction).”

In the body of the article that authors go over some prior studies that have looked into retractions and describe their research and data gathering methodology.

Of the 208 closed cases the authors explored, 75 cited at least once article and their were a total of 174 articles. The authors found

“Of these 174 cited articles, we found both the article and a retraction/correction for 127, the article but no retraction/correction for 27, and neither the article nor a retraction/correction for 20. Since eight of the 127 retractions consisted of simply the word ‘retracted,’ our analysis focused on the remaining 119 articles for which a more substantial retraction or correction statement was published.”

Of these 119 articles explored the authors found

“…fewer corrections (20.2%, 24/119) than retractions (79.8%, 95/119), and only 10.9% (13/119) of these statements acknowledged plagiarism. Less than half of the statements (41.2%, 49/119) mentioned ethics at all and only about a third (32.8%, 39/119) named a specific ethical problem.”

In the discussion section the authors state

“While admitting publicly that one has been associated with an article involving research misconduct can be embarrassing, one could argue that authors should fully explain why an article is being retracted or corrected, especially when misconduct by at least one of the authors is involved. Honesty and transparency require scientists to tell the whole truth when retracting or correcting an article, so that others can evaluate their work and decide whether parts of the research unaffected misconduct can be trusted and whether any of the coauthors are at fault.”

Of course the authors mention that legal liability issues could play a role here. Further the policies of journals can be changed/adopted so that greater honesty and transparency is present when it comes to corrections and retractions. The other troubling finding is that some papers found were never retracted or corrected meaning that some scientists may not be aware of this when reviewing the article. As the authors note their findings may not be representative of articles published in engineering, physics, and social sciences journals.

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