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Good Practices

Policies on retraction of articles

BoasPraticas jpgdaniel buenoA survey of the publishers of 174 high-impact scientific journals in various fields of knowledge found that 65% of them have put in place policies to handle retractions of scientific articles, i.e., the disqualification and cancellation of published papers upon discovery of errors or fraud.  This percentage, announced in an article in the July 2015 issue of the Journal of the Medical Library Association, is triple the percentage recorded by a 2004 survey of 122 publications in the biomedical field.  According to the authors of the latest study, a plausible conclusion is that the number of journals instituting rules for retraction has risen because their publishers have become more aware of the importance of dealing with the problem.  “This helps corroborate the theory that the number of article retractions has increased in the past 10 years because more publications have adopted policies to handle them,” says the report signed by David Resnik and Grace Kissling, both of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in the United States, and Elizabeth Wager, former chair of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), a forum in which 9,000 science editors discuss research ethics.

The study assessed the origins of the rules adopted.  In half the cases, the publishers themselves defined the policies.  In another 30%, they were based partially on recommendations by COPE, which in 2009 issued guidance on the subject.  And for another 6%, the rules were inspired entirely by suggestions from COPE.  Other sources, such as the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE), were also mentioned.

Among journals that have established policies for retractions, 94% allow an article to be canceled despite the authors’ disagreement with the decision.  Similarly, 53% of those publications are willing to publish statements of concern, which are alerts about potential irregularities in an article that are still being looked into, without authorization from the responsible parties.  According to the researchers, such a precautionary measure is important because authors do not always agree to a retraction or consent to an investigation, yet journals need tools to preserve the integrity of what they have published.

Among publications that have not yet implemented rules on retractions, the majority specializes in articles that serve as reviews, which compile and analyze data from existing literature and do not disseminate unpublished data.  According to survey authors, those publications do not feel compelled to create policies on retraction because they rarely encounter cases of data falsification or fabrication.  The recommendation stands, however, that those reviews, too, should adopt rules for dealing with the problem.  “They could be working with authors who have plagiarized other publications,” the researchers point out.