The blog Retraction Watch, supported by Science magazine, has launched a searchable database of 18,000 retractions since the 1970s. Retraction of a research paper is the scientific equivalent of the death penalty. While the figure of 18,000 seems enormous, it is a tiny percentage of the rapidly increasing scientific literature.
Some retractions are extremely troubling. A Japanese anaesthetist, Yoshitaka Fujii, holds the record for most papers retracted – 169. Lagging far behind is Joachim Boldt, author of 98 retracted papers, also in anaesthetics. Coming third is Diederik Stapel, a Dutch researcher in social psychology with 58 retracted papers. Boldt’s misconduct might have injured some patients. Stapel’s placed his whole sub-specialty under a cloud.
Retraction Watch drew some conclusions from its study of these papers:
“Although the absolute number of annual retractions has grown, the rate of increase has slowed.” The rate doubled between 2003 and 2009, but then levelled off. Only about four in 10,000 papers are ever retracted and the number of papers published doubled between 2003 and 2016.
“Much of the rise appears to reflect improved oversight at a growing number of journals.” Editors are more aware of fraud and plagiarism and even lowly-rated journals are becoming more vigilant.
“Relatively few authors are responsible for a disproportionate number of retractions.” There are 13,000 authors in the Retraction Watch database, and a mere 500 of these are responsible for one-fourth of the retractions.
“Nations with smaller scientific communities appear to have a bigger problem with retractions.” Developed nations have more facilities for handling research misconduct.
“A retraction does not always signal scientific misbehaviour.” It is important to stress that retraction often – about 40% of the time -- takes place because of error or inability to reproduce results. Ultimately, the purpose of a retraction is to correct the record, not to signal research misconduct.
The authors suggest that the word “retraction” carries such a burden of stigma that a change in terminology might be helpful.
One helpful reform, some commentators say, would be for journals to follow a standardized nomenclature that would give more details in retraction and correction notices. The notices should specify the nature of a paper's problems and who was responsible—the authors or the journal itself. Reserving the fraught term "retraction" for papers involving intentional misconduct and devising alternatives for other problems might also prompt more authors to step forward and flag their papers that contain errors, some experts posit.
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