Why All Retractions and Corrections Should Be Open Access

What’s behind paper retractions? (1)
by Adam Marcus and Ivan Oransky, Labtimes 02/2011

Photo: zettberlin / Source: PHOTOCASE

The February issue of the Archives of Surgery has a wonderful paper about the work of Harvey Cushing, the pioneering surgeon of the early 20th century. In a review of 30 of Cushing’s cases from Johns Hopkins, the authors:

“[…] demonstrate that alongside pioneering profound advancements in medical care, Cushing openly acknowledged and described significant instances of human error, mistakes in judgment and technique, and equipment and supply oversights, regardless of whether these events affected patient outcome. Mistakes were analyzed and recorded to be drawn on as lessons to improve future care […]”

It’s a bit ironic, however, that the study about Cushing’s “open and thorough documentation of surgical mistakes at the dawn of neurologic surgery” is behind a paywall. You can’t read it unless you pay US$ 30 or are a subscriber to the journal.

The open access movement has clearly made substantial progress in freeing research papers for all to see. But it’s also clear that there is a lot of work to be done.

Retractions and corrections are one area in need of improvement. Since we started Retraction Watch last year, we’ve found that many journals and publishers do very little to publicise retractions. That begins with the fact that some retraction notices are so opaque as to be useless (we’ll come back to this subject in a future column). We’re happy to dig into the reasons for those retractions, even if the response we get is sometimes “none of your damn business!”

And the seeming attempts to hide missteps continue with the fact that most journals don’t put out press releases about retractions, even when the original studies garnered a lot of attention.

We’ll keep fighting for better explanations and better publicity. But even if those are quixotic battles, there’s one we think is winnable: making all retraction and correction notices open access.

In fact, one of the arguments we’ve heard about why it isn’t necessary to send out a press release about retractions is that the most important audience for retractions is scientists. Those scientists may come across the paper serendipitously, or as part of a literature review for a paper they’re writing, or in an attempt to create a protocol for future research. So, even if making sure a study is marked “retracted” is only important for researchers – something we’re not conceding, by the way – what happens when those researchers can’t actually read the notice?

It can’t possibly be that retractions and corrections are such moneymakers for publishers that making them freely available would have a significant effect on revenue. After all, even with retractions on the rise — as a recent study found — only about 30 occur for every 100,000 papers published each year. Corrections are probably several times that, but it’s still a miniscule number.

So we urge all publishers: make retractions and corrections freely available. Don’t hide your mistakes under a bushel!

In the coming months, we’ll be introducing a set of icons that will alert Retraction Watch readers as to whether a retraction notice is freely available, or only available to subscribers. Our hope is that it will goad publishers into doing the right thing.

The Committee on Publication Ethics, a 6,400-member strong international organisation that promotes ethics in research publishing, agrees with us. In their guidelines, they recommend that “notices of retraction should be freely available to all readers (i.e. not behind access barriers or available only to subscribers).”

Some journals already do this, we’ve found. We applaud them. But those who don’t should really consider whether paywalling retractions is the kind of transparency on which science prides itself.

(The authors run the blog Retraction Watch: http://retractionwatch.com)

Last Changed: 03.05.2012