Publication in scholarly journals is an essential part of the biomedical research process. Journals build their reputations by publishing articles of scientific import and significance, and, in turn, the reputation of the journal lends authenticity and legitimacy to the articles it publishes. So what happens when a journal's authenticity and legitimacy are challenged by the appearance of incorrect or fraudulent information in its pages?
“Speedy and full-throated” should be the standard for retractions in the scientific publishing community [14
]. There are many reasons for this. Kennedy, editor-in-chief of Science
, lamenting a retraction from his prestigious journal wrote
Scientists unknown to us relied on meaningless results, perhaps altering their own research plans as a consequence, and busy peer reviewers wasted valuable time. There is an even heavier cost: Each such case represents another depreciation of trust, not only within our community but also on the part of our public patrons. [15
Caelleigh, then editor of Academic Medicine,
wrote that editors have important roles in sustaining integrity in research and in maintaining the integrity of the scientific literature [16
]. To this end, they must publish, where the information will be publicly and easily available, the policies and standards to which they will hold authors and reviewers; they must then enforce those policies; and they must follow through by publishing corrections, retractions, and notices of duplicate publication. According to Caelleigh, these guidelines should be public and easily available, because publication of the rules is essential to their enforcement. Therefore, they should be on the journal's Website, usually in the journal's Instructions for Authors. Journal policies for handing questionable publications must be clear, and the procedures for acting on them must be in place. Editors must even be prepared to retract articles on their own, without the concurrence of the authors or their institutions.
Garfield, the father of citation indexing and the founder of ISI, said that the correction of errors and the retraction of incorrect or premature conclusions is an expected part of the routine practice of science and that journal editors should routinely allocate space for the publication of such notices. Garfield quotes New York Times
science writer Wade as saying, “If journals reserved regular space for corrections, like those found in newspapers, statements of error might become less traumatic” [17
]. Garfield called on the scientific community to value its freedom enough to do what is necessary to retain its independence by policing itself and paying attention to small issues such as inadvertent errors and their corrections, so that those outside the community will not misinterpret inactivity. He said scientists must put their own house in order, because those outside the community do not understand the structure of science or the behavior of scientists.
Korn, speaking at the First International Symposium on Peer Review in Biomedical Publication in 1989, said that there is little agreement in the scientific community about the appropriate mechanisms of correction or retraction that would be clearly understandable and adoptable for general application [18
]. He urged the scientific community to develop agreed-upon mechanisms to purge the literature of contaminated, and hence potentially dangerous, misleading information. In his opinion, the editors and publishers of the scientific literature must undertake this initiative, and, if they delayed doing so, it would become more likely that the necessary corrective mechanisms will be forced upon them by those outside the community and will be imposed by law or regulation.
This did indeed almost happen, shortly thereafter. In the early 1990s, Congress initiated an effort to get journals to retract articles shown to be associated with scientific misconduct. Bills reauthorizing funding for programs at the National Institutes of Health were introduced into Congress that also contained provisions that would essentially force scientific journals to adopt federal misconduct guidelines. Journals were threatened with elimination from indexing in MEDLINE, if they failed to cooperate. An editorial in Nature
called the proposed sanction “a powerful influence towards compliance” but stated that journal editors were suspicious of this attempt by the Congress to tell them what to do, saying they already have their own policies and procedures in place to deal with scientific misconduct [19
In its 1989 study, The Responsible Conduct of Research in the Health Sciences,
the Institute of Medicine (IOM) said that journals need to more clearly define the responsibilities for publishing retractions of faulty research and that they have an obligation to publish retractions of published reports that have been found erroneous by the original authors or that have been declared fraudulent by appropriate authorities at the research institutions [20
]. They recommended that science journal editors develop a uniform system for reporting serious violations of professional standards to research institutions, as well as a standard format and location for the publication of notices of fraud, errors, and corrections.
In its expansion of topics included in the “Uniform Requirements for Manuscripts Submitted to Biomedical Journals,” the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) published its statement on retraction of research findings in 1988 in four prominent medical journals [21
]. This was updated in 1998 and again in 2000 and now appears as the section on “Corrections and Retractions” [22
]. The ICMJE position is that it is not the function of a journal editor to investigate allegations about research they have published but to print retractions if and when published papers are found to be fraudulent by the funding agency or sponsoring institution. Retractions of fraudulent papers and “expressions of concern” about the possibility of fraud should be labeled as such and printed on a numbered page in a prominent section of the journal, and listed in the table of contents and should include in its heading the title of the original article. The text of the retraction should explain why the article is being retracted and include the proper bibliographic reference to it.
In the United Kingdom, the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) has issued guidelines on good publication practice [23
]. These guidelines end with suggested sanctions for dealing with misconduct. Short of reporting to the General Medical Council, the most severe sanction is “Formal withdrawal or retraction of the paper from the scientific literature, informing other editors and the indexing authorities.”
The ninth edition of the American Medical Association's Manual of Style
considers the issue of retraction in a section on “Editorial Policy for Detecting and Handling Allegations of Scientific Misconduct,” saying that editors of AMA journals “will respond strongly to evidence of misappropriation or misrepresentation, promptly publish a retraction, preferably but not necessarily signed by the offending authors in the correspondence column” [24
]. The policy suggests that editors work with authors to make the retraction notices as accurate as possible, giving the authors an opportunity to soften their misconduct.
The Office of Research Integrity (ORI), US Department of Health and Human Services, provides guidelines designed to provide direction to editors on reporting suspect manuscripts, facilitating investigations of allegations of misconduct, improving correction of the literature, and promoting research integrity [25
]. The Public Health Service (PHS) requires that articles based on PHS-funded research involved in any misconduct finding be corrected or retracted. Those subject to such a misconduct finding must submit a letter within thirty days to the pertinent journal requesting publication of a correction or retraction. To ensure that editors are notified, ORI sends them a letter with a copy of the official report of the misconduct. ORI may request that journals publish corrections or retractions resulting from scientific misconduct cases, but they do not have the authority to require the journal to do it. They can, however, require the scientist who committed the misconduct to submit the request. ORI also asks that the retraction be labeled as such, appear in a prominent section of the journal, be listed in the table of contents, and include in its heading the title and citation of the original journal article, just as the National Library of Medicine (NLM) requires.