Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Journals should publicise their retraction index

Here are several interesting and related things about retracted journal articles.

1. Some retracted articles continue to get cited!
For example, today I found an interesting reference to this Science paper from 2001, only to learn it had been retracted. Furthermore, Google Scholar shows the paper has been cited several times in the past 4 years. Indeed, some of the Schon-Batlogg papers are still cited, for scientific reasons, not just as examples of scientific fraud. (For example, this recent JACS).

2. The Careers section of Nature has an interesting article Retractions: A Clean Slate, which makes the case that if you make an "innocent" mistake the best thing you can do is promptly make a retraction. But, there are some pitfalls. One thing that is still not clear to me is how in some cases one decides between complete retraction, partial retraction, and an erratum.

3. There is a correlation between journal impact factor and the frequency of retractions.
Somehow I did not find the graph below surprising.
This is described in an interesting editorial Retracted Science and the Retraction Index in the journal Infection and Immunity.
We defined a “retraction index” for each journal as the number of retractions in the time interval from 2001 to 2010, multiplied by 1,000, and divided by the number of published articles with abstracts. 
 ... the disproportionally high payoff associated with publishing in higher-impact journals could encourage risk-taking behavior by authors in study design, data presentation, data analysis, and interpretation that subsequently leads to the retraction of the work. 
Another possibility is that the desire of high-impact journals for clear and definitive reports may encourage authors to manipulate their data to meet this expectation. In contradistinction to the crisp, orderly results of a typical manuscript in a high-impact journal, the reality of everyday science is often a messy affair littered with nonreproducible experiments, outlier data points, unexplained results, and observations that fail to fit into a neat story. In such situations, desperate authors may be enticed to take short cuts, withhold data from the review process, overinterpret results, manipulate images, and engage in behavior ranging from questionable practices to outright fraud (26). 
Alternatively, publications in high-impact journals have increased visibility and may accordingly attract greater scrutiny that results in the discovery of problems eventually leading to retraction. It is possible that each of these explanations contributes to the correlation between retraction index and impact factor.
I look forward to the day when journals publicise their retraction index and university managers discourage their staff from publishing in certain journals because their retraction index is too high.

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