Quality checks beyond peer review? Retractions, withdrawals, corrections, etc

I often find myself reading/writing things about whether peer review is working or not, the opportunities for post publication peer review and about the changes needed in scholarly communication. An article in the THE earlier this year described a “secret dossier on research fraud” and the concerns it expresses are familiar, although I balk at the word “fraud”.  The THE article/its source claims that:

scientists and journals are extremely reluctant to retract their papers, even in the face of damning evidence

Perhaps the scientists don’t completely understand the processes that publishers use, nor indeed feel able to influence the consequences to their reputations which they must maintain in order to stand a chance of winning the next research grant and remain employed. I used to give workshops to budding researchers on “how to get published”, when I would explain something of the publishing process to them, and my final slide was all about corrections, errata and retractions: what is the difference between them, and why and how do they occur? (Quick answers below!) Even if the reason for retraction should bring no shame, but honour for admitting a mistake, researchers still don’t want to have an article retracted.

Perhaps in the days of print there was even more reason for stringency in avoiding post-publication alterations: after all, the version of record, the print article, would have been impossible to correct and researchers could only be alerted to any retractions or corrections through metadata records and, perhaps if they were avid readers of a journal then they might spot notices in later editions. However, I do wonder if, in the digital world, there is more room for post-publication alterations without shame, in the name of improving science. This is why it is important for researchers and publishers to work together to define the different categories of such alterations and what do they mean for a researcher’s reputation? There is a lack of clarity, which I think stems partially from a variety of practice with different journals, publishers or even database providers in how they describe and handle the various circumstances in which post-publication alterations are needed.

Corrections, corrigenda and errata are used by journals for minor corrections to a published work, eg name of an author was mis-spelled, or a title not properly capitalised, or also for a minor error in an amount mentioned, eg dosage. These are published in later issues in print, added to metadata records in the digital sphere, and also usually visible in the digital full text with a note in brackets after the corrected item. As a librarian, I’m interested in how this sort of information is transferred in metadata records: the U.S. National Library of Medicine website describes how these are usually all referred to as Errata in PubMed, and their page about this goes on to explain and categorise many different types of t

For me, these are a very good reason to ensure that you read the final published version of an article that you intend to cite: the green OA pre-print version of an article is useful for you to understand the work, but not the one I recommend citing.

Retractions are when an article is withdrawn: this is something that you can do as the author, or indeed your institution could do it on your behalf (sometimes also called a withdrawal, see below), or the editor or publisher of a journal can retract an article. Reasons for retraction of an article include a pervasive (but honest) error in the work, or sometimes might be for unethical practice. I can’t recommend the RetractionWatch blog highly enough for examples and stories of retractions. Sometimes you also hear about a partial retraction which might occur when only one figure or part of the conclusions is withdrawn, whilst the rest of the paper is sound.

Withdrawals are when a paper is no longer included in a publication, often when it has accidentally been published twice. I am increasingly hearing of fees being charged to authors for a withdrawal. Publishers usually have policies about what they consider to be grounds for a withdrawal: see Elsevier’s explanation of withdrawals and retractions, for example.

My explanations are a very light-touch introduction to the subject: publishers’ guidance will give you more of an idea about what might happen to your own articles, but I do see a variety of terminology and practice. My advice to academics is to never make assumptions that work which has been corrected or retracted is necessarily suspect, nor that it should affect a researcher’s reputation unless the whole story is known. Just like the reason why we can’t take bibliometric or altmetric scores as the whole picture of an academic’s worth: we always need context. If we all did this, then there would be no reason for authors to resist retraction, but I know that that is an ideal. Hence the story in the THE which I began with…

 

 

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