Understanding Retraction in Science

Scientific papers and journals are portrayed as (what the kids like to call) ‘legit’, a goldmine of information that narrates the true nature of the universe, unlocking its billion year old secrets.

But what happens to these secrets when we decide to publish studies that are somehow invalid, incorrect, or shoddy?

The universe in a nutshell. Image via Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig.

The universe in a nutshell. Image via Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig.

Typically, when less-than-ideal-papers are reported to its journal (it was published in), it may be subject to retraction.

Retraction is the removal of research articles from its affiliated journal, because its observations/results have been unreproducible, incorrect, and/or refuted by the scientific community.

University of Rochester’s Susan Feng Lu & colleagues (2013) studied how the number of citations changes for a researcher’s work before the event of their paper/s being retracted. For this analysis, Lu & colleagues (2013) compared over 1000 papers between 2000 and 2011 from the Web of Science (WOS) database from over 200 fields of study.

In their sample, they found that the number of paper retractions has increased annually, from 20 in 2000 to 456 in 2011. They also found that 49.1% of retracted papers from their observed samples come from biomedical journals compared to those in social sciences and humanities.

Researchers who were involved in the retracted paper may face serious consequences and/or career setbacks. If this is the case, then why do scientists publish unideal papers at all?

rising retraction rates: peer pressure or better technology?

We are seeing more papers being retracted every year as a result of academic misconduct, with over 40% of retracted papers (from PubMed or WOS) being a product of dishonesty in the form of plagiarism, self-plagiarism, and data fabrication. Some of these papers were even published in prestigious journals like Nature or Science. 

But what is causing this academic dishonesty?

Rising rates of retractions may be due to increased competitiveness as a result of decreased funding,  grant opportunities, or other escalating pressures in scientific R&D such as job instability. Thus, this may lead to producing less-than-ideal manuscripts, which is prone to invalidity and ultimately, retraction.

Alternatively, in their study, Murat Cokol and colleagues (2008) have argued that rising retraction rates in the Medline database (since the 1950s) may also be due to improvements in detecting faulty papers through new software programs that detect plagiarized content and images. Improvements and developments of these applications have attempted to maintain scientific integrity by detecting dishonest, faulty research.

So perhaps it’s a combination of both.

But people like John Ioannidis don’t necessarily believe in rising rates of dishonest studies being published. Instead, the reasons behind this retraction madness may be still remain unclear.

I don’t think that there is suddenly a boom in the production of fraudulent or erroneous work. 

Honest Errors: Self-Retraction

Not all retracted papers are a product of misconduct and faulty data.

In fact, there are researchers that have deliberately requested retraction of their own papers as a result of honest, human mistakes. An article published in Nature states that 28% of retracted papers are a product of honest error.

In 2012, University of Vermont’s Rory Waterman requested retraction of his manuscript after one of his graduate students noticed that the products from a reaction of phenylsilane with iridium catalysts were mischaracterized, ultimately convoluting the paper’s results.

In 2009, plant geneticist Pamela Ronald from the University of California voluntarily withdrew her team’s paper in Nature after she found that her results could not be reproduced by new lab members. The root of the problem? Mislabelled bacterial strains. Although her 1995 paper was widely cited (and some three labs have reportedly reproduced her findings), Ronald demonstrates her dedication towards maintaining scientific integrity, stating that:

There was never any question, even from the people who did the original work, that we do anything different than retract the paper if it was wrong…[w]e didn’t want to mislead anyone else.

It is possible that researchers who report their retractions may not experience as severe a consequence compared to those who don’t report their err.

Lu et al. (2013) observed that researchers who reported their papers did not lose a significant amount of citations from their previous papers, even 5 years after the retraction event. The study even argues that self-reporting mistakes on papers may even be rewarded, since there is a possibility that these researchers may experience some gains of citations for their previous work after the retraction event.

Researchers who admit their mistakes are the practitioners who remain true to the discipline. They maintain the integrity of science, whose purpose is to discover the truth of our reality, which is transcendent beyond other external factors.

That said, it actually takes guts to admit a mistake in the demanding environment of academia and research, because while honesty may be rewarded, it doesn’t leave behind the repercussions.

The Consequences of Retracting Faulty Research

Publishing incorrect data without self-reporting these errors can cause severe repercussions to the researchers involved in the study. Researchers have voluntarily resigned from their respected positions, while the institution they were affiliated with may also receive negative backlash as well. Some have refused to give up on their scientific endeavours, while at the risk of being criticized by members of the scientific community.

A researcher’s reputation is also at stake; Lu et al. (2013) observed that in their sample, researchers who had their papers retracted and failed to self-report it have experienced a gradual loss of citations for subsequent published papers (even 5 years after the retraction event)! Researchers lose their jobs, and the reputations of the institutions that supported their research is also tarnished.

We are constantly bombarded with novel information about diet pills, gadgets, and the controversial findings that claim breathing air is somehow now carcinogenic. There is a rising belief that GMOs are spawned from Lucifer, or that climate change is a perpetuated myth by governments looking to make a buck.

Whether these claims are utter hogwash or actually legit, information about everything and anything is being thrown at us with every breath we take, every corner we turn, and with every blinking eye we blink.

To make sense of all this extraneous information, we make our own opinions, extracting tidbits of information from scientific literature. We like to confide in science, because it defines logic. We like to base our arguments on facts that are supported by scientific research because it just makes ‘sense’.

Ultimately, we tarnish the image of scientific literature by failing to include rigorous peer review of all scientific papers before they are published. Most importantly, we further tarnish this image by failing to report these mistakes.

If we continue our academic dishonesties, scientific journals may regress into an academic Google. To find the reliable paper in a journal, we’ll have to sift through a number of unreliable ones with much dismay.

Retracted papers as a result of faulty data or misconduct ruins the integrity of scientific literature, a supposed valuable source of information that is (mostly) a conduit of logic.


Renee C. has received her B.Sc. in Honours Life Sciences at McMaster University. She loves educating others about different topics in science, and has developed a passion for scientific outreach. When she’s not writing articles for Hemtecks, she’s either volunteering or checking her social media accounts every 20 minutes. Along with Tiffany (Tianhemtecks), she also facilitates the blog’s Facebook page. 

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