To Retract or Not to Retract… That’s the Question

7 06 2011

In the previous post I discussed [1] that editors of Science asked for the retraction of a paper linking XMRV retrovirus to ME/CFS.

The decision of the editors was based on the failure of at least 10 other studies to confirm these findings and on growing support that the results were caused by contamination. When the authors refused to retract their paper, Science issued an Expression of Concern [2].

In my opinion retraction is premature. Science should at least await the results of two multi-center studies, that were designed to confirm or disprove the results. These studies will continue anyway… The budget is already allocated.

Furthermore, I can’t suppress the idea that Science asked for a retraction to exonerate themselves for the bad peer review (the paper had serious flaws) and their eagerness to swiftly publish the possibly groundbreaking study.

And what about the other studies linking the XMRV to ME/CFS or other diseases: will these also be retracted?
And what happens in the improbable case that the multi-center studies confirm the 2009 paper? Would Science republish the retracted paper?

Thus in my opinion, it is up to other scientists to confirm or disprove findings published. Remember that falsifiability was Karl Popper’s basic scientific principle. My conclusion was that “fraud is a reason to retract a paper and doubt is not”. 

This is my opinion, but is this opinion shared by others?

When should editors retract a paper? Is fraud the only reason? When should editors issue a letter of concern? Are there guidelines?

Let first say that even editors don’t agree. Schekman, the editor-in chief of PNAS, has no direct plans to retract another paper reporting XMRV-like viruses in CFS [3].

Schekman considers it “an unusual situation to retract a paper even if the original findings in a paper don’t hold up: it’s part of the scientific process for different groups to publish findings, for other groups to try to replicate them, and for researchers to debate conflicting results.”

Back at the Virology Blog [4] there was also a vivid discussion about the matter. Prof. Vincent Ranciello gave the following answer in response to a question of a reader:

I don’t have any hard numbers on how often journals ask scientists to retract a paper, only my sense that it is very rare. Author retractions are more frequent, but I’m only aware of a handful of those in a year. I can recall a few other cases in which the authors were asked to retract a paper, but in those cases scientific fraud was involved. That’s not the case here. I don’t believe there is a standard policy that enumerates how such decisions are made; if they exist they are not public.

However, there is a Guideline for editors, the Guidance from the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) (PDF) [5]

Ivanoranski, of the great blog Retraction Watch, linked to it when we discussed reasons for retraction.

With regard to retraction the COPE-guidelines state that journal editors should consider retracting a publication if:

  1. they have clear evidence that the findings are unreliable, either as a result of misconduct (e.g. data fabrication) or honest error (e.g. miscalculation or experimental error)
  2. the findings have previously been published elsewhere without proper crossreferencing, permission or justification (i.e. cases of redundant publication)
  3. it constitutes plagiarism
  4. it reports unethical research

According to the same guidelines journal editors should consider issuing an expression of concern if:

  1. they receive inconclusive evidence of research or publication misconduct by the authors 
  2. there is evidence that the findings are unreliable but the authors’ institution will not investigate the case 
  3. they believe that an investigation into alleged misconduct related to the publication either has not been, or would not be, fair and impartial or conclusive 
  4. an investigation is underway but a judgement will not be available for a considerable time

Thus in the case of the Science XMRV/CSF paper an expression of concern certainly applies (all 4 points) and one might even consider a retraction, because the results seem unreliable (point 1). But it is not 100%  established that the findings are false. There is only serious doubt……

The guidelines seem to leave room for separate decisions. To retract a paper in case of plain fraud is not under discussion. But when is an error sufficiently established ànd important to warrant retraction?

Apparently retractions are on the rise. Although still rare (0.02% of all publications by the late 2000s) there has been a tenfold increase in retractions compared to the early 1980s (see review at Scholarly Kitchen [6] about two papers: [7] and [8]). However it is unclear whether increasing rates of retraction reflect more fraudulent or erroneous papers or a better diligence. The  first paper [7] also highlights that, out of fear of litigation, editors are generally hesitant to retract an article without the author’s permission.

At the blog Nerd Alert they give a nice overview [9] (based on Retraction Watch, but then summarized in one post ;) ) . They clarify that papers are retracted for “less dastardly reasons then those cases that hit the national headlines and involve purposeful falsification of data”, such as the fraudulent papers of Andrew Wakefield (autism caused by vaccination). Besides the mistaken publication of the same paper twice, data over-interpretation, plagiarism and the like, the reason can also be more trivial: ordering the wrong mice or using an incorrectly labeled bottle.

Still, scientist don’t unanimously agree that such errors should lead to retraction.

Drug Monkey blogs about his discussion [10] with @ivanoransky over a recent post at Retraction Watch, which asks whether a failure to replicate a result justifies a retraction [11]“. Ivanoransky presents a case, where a researcher (B) couldn’t reproduce the findings of another lab (A) and demonstrated mutations in the published protein sequence that excluded the mechanism proposed in A’s paper. This wasn’t retracted, possibly because B didn’t follow the published experimental protocols of A in all details. (reminds me of the XMRV controversy). 

Drugmonkey says (quote):  (cross-posted at Scientopia here – hmmpf isn’t that an example of redundant publication?)

“I don’t give a fig what any journals might wish to enact as a policy to overcompensate for their failures of the past.
In my view, a correction suffices” (provided that search engines like Google and PubMed make clear that the paper was in fact corrected).

Drug Monkey has a point there. A clear watermark should suffice.

However, we should note that most papers are retracted by authors, not the editors/journals, and that the majority of “retracted papers” remain available. Just 13.2% are deleted from the journal’s website. And 31% are not clearly labelled as such.

Summary of how the naïve reader is alerted to paper retraction (from Table 2 in [7], see: Scholarly Kitchen [6])

  • Watermark on PDF (41.1%)
  • Journal website (33.4%)
  • Not noted anywhere (31.8%)
  • Note appended to PDF (17.3%)
  • PDF deleted from website (13.2%)

My conclusion?

Of course fraudulent papers should be retracted. Also papers with obvious errors that invalidate the conclusions.

However, we should be extremely hesitant to retract papers that can’t be reproduced, if there is no undisputed evidence of error.

Otherwise we should retract almost all published papers at one point or another. Because if Professor Ioannides is right (and he probably is) “Much of what medical researchers conclude in their studies is misleading, exaggerated, or flat-out wrong”. ( see previous post [12],  “Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science” [13])  and Ioannides’ crushing article “Why most published research findings are false [14]”)

All retracted papers (and papers with major deficiencies and shortcomings) should be clearly labeled as such (as Drugmonkey proposed, not only at the PDF and at the Journal website, but also by search engines and biomedical databases).

Or lets hope, with Biochembelle [15], that the future of scientific publishing will make retractions for technical issues obsolete (whether in the form of nano-publications [16] or otherwise):

One day the scientific community will trade the static print-type approach of publishing for a dynamic, adaptive model of communication. Imagine a manuscript as a living document, one perhaps where all raw data would be available, others could post their attempts to reproduce data, authors could integrate corrections or addenda….

NOTE: Retraction Watch (@ivanoransky) and @laikas have voted in @drugmonkeyblog‘s poll about what a retracted paper means [here]. Have you?


  1. Science Asks to Retract the XMRV-CFS Paper, it Should Never Have Accepted in the First Place. ( 2011-06-02)
  2. Alberts B. Editorial Expression of Concern. Science. 2011-05-31.
  3. Given Doubt Cast on CFS-XMRV Link, What About Related Research? (
  4. XMRV is a recombinant virus from mice  (Virology Blog : 2011/05/31)
  5. Retractions: Guidance from the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) Elizabeth Wager, Virginia Barbour, Steven Yentis, Sabine Kleinert on behalf of COPE Council:
  6. Retract This Paper! Trends in Retractions Don’t Reveal Clear Causes for Retractions (
  7. Wager E, Williams P. Why and how do journals retract articles? An analysis of Medline retractions 1988-2008. J Med Ethics. 2011 Apr 12. [Epub ahead of print] 
  8. Steen RG. Retractions in the scientific literature: is the incidence of research fraud increasing? J Med Ethics. 2011 Apr;37(4):249-53. Epub 2010 Dec 24.
  9. Don’t touch that blot. ( : 2011/02/25)
  10. What_does_a_retracted_paper_mean? ( 2011/06/03)
  11. So when is a retraction warranted? The long and winding road to publishing a failure to replicate ( : 2011/06/03/)
  12. Much Ado About ADHD-Research: Is there a Misrepresentation of ADHD in Scientific Journals? ( 2011-06-02)
  13. “Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science” ( :2010/11/)
  14. Ioannidis, J. (2005). Why Most Published Research Findings Are False. PLoS Medicine, 2 (8) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pmed.0020124
  15. Retractions: What are they good for? ( : 2011/06/04/)
  16. Will Nano-Publications & Triplets Replace The Classic Journal Articles? ( 2011-06-02)

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