A Retraction: Au Revoir...

What’s behind paper retractions? (32)
by Adam Marcus and Ivan Oransky, Labtimes 01/2016

Photo: zettberlin / Source: PHOTOCASE

… but not goodbye, say Adam Marcus and Ivan Oransky. This is their last regular column for Lab Times. A summary.

For the last five years, we’ve had the privilege of writing for Lab Times about what’s good and, more often, what’s not, in science publishing. Thanks to a growing crush of priorities, this will be our final regular column. So, in the valedictory spirit, we’d like to revisit some of the motifs that have appeared in our articles. (For a list of all columns by the two Retraction Watchers, go to: www.labtimes.org/labtimes/ranking/retraction.lasso). In some cases, we’ve been encouraged by signs of progress. In others, well, not so much.

Obscurant double-speak

Let’s start with the bad. Euphemisms for plagiarism persist. As we wrote in 2013, journals often are loath to call plagiarism by its real name. Instead, they settle for a kind of obscurant double-speak, often written by authors themselves, that avoids accountability. An example: “the paper was constructed by copying a number of passages from the paper entitled ... The authors apologize for this approach.” As we wrote on Retraction Watch, plagiarism is an “approach” to writing, the way bank robbery is an approach to banking.

We’d love to be able to say that we’ve seen significant progress here. But alas, it seems each week brings new excuses for misusing the work of others. We published part two of the seemingly endless euphemism parade last year. Here’s the very latest, admittedly not from a scientific journal but from a local newspaper in our native country: “I acted out of patriotism.” (And no, the author wasn’t Donald Trump or another presidential candidate.)

No lawyers needed

Another alarming trend we’ve noticed is the growing intrusiveness of lawyers in scientific publishing. From researchers irked by the barbs of critics to muddied retraction notices that say little for fear of legal action, the specter of lawsuits threatens to make journals and publishers less transparent at a time when precisely the opposite is needed. And based on the number of such suits we’ve covered since that 2014 column, from Boston to Brazil, this trend shows no sign of abating.

Now, for the good: In 2012, we asked – rhetorically, of course – whether journalists, such as ourselves, should be in the business of outing science cheats. At the time, many scientists and journal editors felt that such coverage debased researchers and would contribute to the public distrust of science itself.

Exposure is good for science

Fortunately, those views didn’t prevail. Indeed, as judged by the interest in sites like ours (admittedly a self-serving metric), science has embraced the notion that it’s not particularly good at self-policing and that exposure of bad actors is a net good for the field. Retraction Watch has been cited more than 100 times in the scientific literature – including in several retraction notices – which we take as a strong indication that information about scientific misdeeds is valuable to scholars.

For even more good news, we’d point to the growth of the Retraction Watch “doing the right thing” category, which we debuted here in 2013. The category now has more than 100 posts in it. And here’s a good reason it should get bigger: Research shows that researchers who retract for honest error don’t see the decline in citations that their peers, who are forced to retract for fraud, see – a trust dividend that underscores the value of transparency in science.

Many problems still to fix

That isn’t to say that all is ‘hunky dory’ (David Bowie, 1971) in scientific publishing. The debate over anonymous whistleblowers – which we weighed in on in 2011 – doesn’t seem to have progressed all that much (http://tinyurl.com/hg6jazv). There are plenty of ongoing problems to fix, from reproducibility to fake peer reviews. While we will no longer be appearing regularly on these pages, Retraction Watch isn’t going anywhere.

Thanks for reading, and for the chance to share our views. See you online.

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

Last Changed: 08.02.2016