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Retractions should not always be a punishment for authors, conference hears

Retractions are not a panacea for the problems of keeping academic literature free of accidental errors or deliberate fraud, researchers were told at a meeting last week.

Institutions must find distinct and more effective processes for dealing with mistakes and misconduct, according to speakers at the 5th World Conference on Research Integrity, held in Amsterdam from 28 to 31 May.

Many academics agree that whereas retraction is a punishment for fraudulent papers, there is a subgroup of retractions that result from honourable mistakes or self-plagiarism.

Ivan Oransky, founder of RetractionWatch, an organisation that tracks the retraction of academic papers, said that there was no need to tarnish papers and authors with a term that denoted misconduct. “People should know when a paper has been retracted,” he said. “But a retraction is not a punishment. The point of a retraction is to correct the scientific record.”

With the rise of open-access publishing and preprints, scientists are more scrutinised than ever, as more eyes mean more comments and retractions. In 2011 alone, there were about 400 retractions, compared with 2,200 between 2001 and 2011, according to RetractionWatch.

Compared to the 2.5 million papers published each year this is a tiny number, but as researchers are facing a competitive funding environment, it is a threatening development. High-impact journals are also not happy because they have the most to lose.

Virginia Barbour, executive director of the Australasian Open Access Strategy Group, an advocacy organisation, said that academics had to get used to dealing with criticism after their work was published, and that retractions needed to be understood as positive processes.

“Retractions are there to correct the literature; they are not a punishment or a sort of sanction,” Barbour said. “If you were to look at the landscape 10 years ago, you wouldn’t find many institutions with a research integrity office; now there is a desire to do things right.”

Correction of authorship—such as a mistake in who wrote a research paper—where there is no reason to doubt the validity of the findings, is a perfect example where a retraction is relevant, said Göran Sandberg, a professor in structural mechanics at Lund University in Sweden.

“There should be a simple procedure for authorship, whereas fraudulent behaviour needs an investigation on whether there is misconduct,” said Sandberg. “Basically, there should be two processes.”

This article also appeared in Research Europe