October 25, 2022, #19
Complaints about the lag between the discovery of integrity problems and official retractions in journals are not new, and now Steve McDonald at Monash University’s health evidence unit Cochrane Australia has provided more data by looking “at retractions among the more than 270,000 COVID-19 papers that have been lodged online since the start of the pandemic. The 212 retracted papers investigated were cited 2697 times, a median of seven times per paper.”¹ A detail worth noting is that even though “almost 90% of citations of these papers referenced the retracted paper without mentioning it had been retracted”¹ apparently “80% were published after the retraction”.¹ This data suggests that the slowness of the formal retraction process plays a more significant role than neglecting to check for retraction notices. The time-gap between submission and publication could be a factor too.
Retraction decisions are hard for any publisher. Scholars expect journals to take a decision to retract an article seriously and should expect a systematic review process, since a retraction may be career-damaging, but most journals lack a formal infrastructure for such decisions. The software that publishers use for peer review was not intended for the goals and intensity of a retraction investigation. Retraction reviewers may also need access to confidential data not available to the original reviewers. There are exceptions to the slow pace of retractions, of course. The data from Surgisphere for some COVID papers were so plainly fake after an investigation by the Guardian that the publishers took unusually quick action.²
A serious problem is how and whether to update a published paper that has cited retracted works. Flagging the paper is insufficient without greater specificity. In the digital world, changing text in an online journal is easy, but many journals and many scholars find the idea of altering already existing publications too Orwellian for comfort without a formal apparatus for flagging the corrections and giving the reasons.
Finding fault is easy. The scholarly world needs to work on establishing a commonly accepted mechanism for handling retractions in a timely and transparent manner.
1: McDonald, Steve. 2022. ‘Retraction Inaction: How COVID-19 Exposed Frailties in Scientific Publishing’. Monash Lens. 17 October 2022. https://lens.monash.edu/@medicine-health/2022/10/17/1385133/retraction-inaction-how-the-pandemic-has-exposed-frailties-in-scientific-publishing.
2: Davey, Melissa, Stephanie Kirchgaessner, and Sarah Boseley. 2020. ‘Surgisphere: Governments and WHO Changed Covid-19 Policy Based on Suspect Data from Tiny US Company’. The Guardian, 3 June 2020, sec. World news. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/03/covid-19-surgisphere-who-world-health-organization-hydroxychloroquine.