An institutional review recommended retraction of certain works by a highly prolific and influential author who has since died. The institutional review focused on a relatively small portion of this author’s work. The institution recommended retraction based on deeming the articles unsafe and identifying several concerns, including that the articles' conclusions were implausible.
As a publisher, we are moving forward with reviewing potential retraction of the articles identified by the institutional report. We are questioning whether we should also review the other articles written by the author in the journals' backfile, based on the following:
1. The institutional report cited serious systemic concerns with the research and findings.
2. The author was highly influential.
3. Many of the articles were published in the 1970s/1980s or earlier.
4. Other areas of the author's work/findings seem contrary to current scientific standards (and potentially harmful).
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
- When responding to an institutional report recommending retraction of certain articles, should editors review the other works of an author as part of their response (and depending on the reasons the retraction was recommended and the potential relevance to the author's other articles, issuing an editor's note or expression of concern to reference the concerns identified in the report findings for the separate retractions).
- With respect to articles in the journal's historic backfile that reference findings that have since been overturned by later works and do not meet current scientific standards (and are potentially harmful or are supportive of a practice that has since been prohibited), is it appropriate for journal editors to initiate their own review of these articles? Should these articles be retracted, or would these cases be more appropriately handled with a “statement of concern” alerting readers to the concerns with the article's findings
- Is retraction an appropriate action so long (decades) after publication?
The Forum agreed this is a difficult case and one that increasingly arises in historic papers with questionable data practices. This is a reflection of a wider problem of how far back to go if there are problems with the data. Data maintenance practices in the past may not always have been very good. It is up to editors to have a look at the papers and see if there's anything very obviously wrong that could be investigated but if it is a general suspicion that the data might not be correct but there is no way to validate this, then an expression of concern might be appropriate.
There is a presumption that the institution must have had specific reasons why the 10 papers should be retracted and not the other ones. If the data are not available and it cannot be proved that there was any manipulation or whether the findings are correct for the other papers, then retraction would be inappropriate, and a statement of concern should be considered, given that the author cannot reply. If an author has committed misconduct, does that mean their whole body of work is invalid? The Forum suggested applying retraction to the 10 articles. For the other articles, a statement of concern for the other papers is appropriate if there is clear evidence of misconduct. Retraction for these articles is not appropriate unless the institution provides sound evidence that the data sets were manipulated or fraudulent.
For the 10 publications that the institution has suggested retracting, are there any living co-authors that could provide more information? The editor might consider contacting any co-authors for more information.
Regarding the fact that the findings of the previous articles may be unsafe, from the institutional perspective, this may not mean a danger to public health. Sometimes institutions use the term unsafe with regard to relying on the data that back the study. Perhaps unsafe means that there is little to support the actual findings and they should be disregarded or looked at it from an historical perspective. The advice was for the editor to apply common sense. There are many practices and treatments (eg, cancer treatments) that have changed dramatically over time and would be considered completely unsafe today, but we would not consider retracting those papers.
Two journals had published 10 articles that were identified by the deceased author’s institution as “unsafe” and recommended for retraction. The editors of these two journals reviewed the institution’s findings and agreed with the recommendation to retract. A retraction notice was issued by each journal for the related articles. The editors of these two journals also issued an expression of concern linked to the other articles by the author that were not identified in the institutional report. The expression of concern alerts readers to the separate institutional report and findings, informing readers that the articles linked to the expression were not part of the institutional review.
Several other journals published articles by the author that were outside the area of research by the institutional review and therefore not listed in the institutional report. The editors of each of these journals were alerted separately to the institutional report so that they could review the articles published in their journals and determine if any action was appropriate. To date, none of the editors have published an expression of concern or taken any other action.