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Contemporary Concepts in Publishing

The Rippling Effects of Journal Retractions

 

Nathan Boutin, Associate Editor

March 2021


To some extent, manuscripts published in academic journals are living documents. In online versions, changes can be made after publication to fix errors and update data in the form of correction notices. These actions are regularly taken by editors to ensure the quality of both the individual paper and the journal in which it is published. However, there are some problems with published material that are too big to tackle by amendment. As a last resort, the paper is removed from circulation entirely—a process known as retraction.

What is an article retraction?

An article retraction is the action an academic journal takes to officially withdraw an already published paper. This is an important process that allows the journal to remove research that has been found to violate publishing standards.

Why are articles retracted?

Retraction can happen for many reasons, but all articles are retracted to maintain integrity in the scientific process and eliminate misinformation. In 2020 alone, dozens of papers on COVID-19 were retracted. For example, one article that suggested 5G technology caused COVID-19 was retracted due to poor data and unsubstantiated claims after being lambasted by the scientific community. Similarly, two studies discussing the malaria drug, hydroxychloroquine, with regard to COVID-19 were retracted after the authors were unable to verify their data sources. Another paper on COVID-19 and sexual intercourse was briefly retracted and then reinstated after the language was modified.

These examples scratch the surface of why manuscripts can be retracted from a journal, but the most common reasons include controversial data acquisition, a questionable scientific method, duplicate publication, and misleading discussion or interpretation of results. Given these reasons, a journal retraction is a serious event with effects that can ripple throughout all involved in the publication process.

How does an article retraction affect researchers?

As one would expect, article retraction has a negative influence on the author’s reputation. Of course, this depends on how the retraction is handled and the severity of the offense. Genuine mistakes happen, but any form of academic misconduct, which involves the fabrication of results, falsification or misrepresentation of data, and plagiarism, can seriously damage the reputation of the authors, associated institutions, and even manuscript preparation services used by the editor. It can be difficult to publish after a retraction, as journals are then hesitant to accept further work. Researchers can face employment difficulties or, in the worst scenarios, legal trouble.

How does an article retraction affect the journal?

Article retraction can understandably harm the reputation of a journal, which is why most unfit papers are weeded out during peer review. Sometimes, though, publishing questionable material can expose predatory journals, which consider profit over scientific merit. For example, one retraction of a paper that was submitted as a joke sparked questions of how such an article could have been reviewed and published by the Asian Journal of Medicine and Health (you can read the full article here). Thus, retractions reflect on the journal just as much as the authors because the publication endorses the content.

What is the legacy of retracted articles?

There is a notion that retracted articles should be treated as if they never existed and their presence should be scrubbed from databases. Most journals eliminate the article from their online issue and remove it from further print editions. However, some journals will leave the retracted article posted but with a watermark indicating its status, much as The Lancet has recently done. From a historical perspective, it is important to maintain this living document, even if it is no longer explicitly endorsed by the journal, authors, or community, for transparency in the publishing and scientific communities.

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