Scientific Editor-in-Chief Wants to Change the Retraction Process: Retraction Watch

Holden Thorp

After a high-profile retraction that followed deep investigations by the science News team Holden Thorp, the journal’s editor-in-chief, says it’s time to improve the process of proofreading the scientific record.

In an editorial published today, Thorp, a former university chancellor, describes the often time-consuming and frustrating process involving journals, universities and government agencies that are often at odds, or at least have different priorities. Based on the experience of what can seem like a deadlock, he asks to divide the process into two stages:

The first phase must assess the validity of the document without attributing blame. The university would then feel free to determine the validity of the document before diving into a lengthy and more complicated investigation of the underlying misconduct.

If the paper is invalid, it can be withdrawn much faster. The second stage, with the journals out of the picture, would be for the university to determine whether there has been fraud that raises the level of research misconduct. This plan would accelerate the correction of the scientific record.

At first glance, the idea makes sense. It seems to be a way to speed up the process and at least let readers know that an article should not be trusted.

But we had some questions about how this would all work, how many problems it would actually solve, and whether it would actually lead to less informative retraction notices. Thorp, who said he was “hoping to start a conversation about how to make things better,” was happy to respond.

RW: Who would do this “first stage” of review? Newspapers? Many say they don’t have the resources (and your editor says journals are “not a research body”), and that reviewing any complaints is the responsibility of the institutions.

HT: At an early stage, the hope is that universities would be willing to do more (and more quickly) if personnel issues were separated from determining the validity of work. As I say in the piece, the alternative is that we go it alone more aggressively, but universities have a lot to lose if that’s where this goes. According to COPE, we have the ability to move on our own because it is our job to determine whether universities and authors give us a “satisfactory” response. Most of the time, we can tell when they’re not, but “satisfactory” is still a pretty subjective term. The hope is to get them to see that we all have a lot to gain in terms of the credibility of science if they would engage more proactively. Rectors and researchers will need to have some courage, because university general counsels can find a million reasons to stall.

RW: As long as journals have the resources, splitting the retraction process into two stages theoretically makes sense. But we’ve already seen countless cases where magazines have done nothing for years after receiving the final conclusions from the universities. How would this new process solve it?

HT: The new process would not solve the problem of the journal not doing anything even if it has definitive statements from the university. This is in the newspaper. We took responsibility for the delay in the Scientific signage case to your tweet.

RW: Will journals update retraction notices that simply say an article is invalid but don’t assign blame or say what happened? Or magazines would allow universities, most of which do not publish research reportsto keep this information hidden forever?

If we get information from the university that the paper is invalid but nothing about the reasons, we still go ahead with a retraction saying that the university has questioned the paper. One challenge with this, as you point out, is that the origins of the problem may never come out because once the journal publishes the retraction, we no longer pursue the university. But universities can easily hide all this now, so we could at least fix the record.

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