Retractions of primary literature papers: how should a review journal react?
Case text (Anonymised)
In a recent and very prominent case of publication misconduct resulting in the retraction of 12 research papers (to date), many journals have been included in ‘round-mails’ from the whistleblower and other scientists. Our journal (a reviews and features journal) has published a review from the main author associated with the misconduct, which contains reference to six of the retracted papers.
As editor, I have been urged a number of times via email (the true sender of which was not always clear) to retract the said review. At first—before the full extent of the retractions was confirmed—I could do no more than wait, rather than react prematurely, although even at that stage, tracking and trying to verify the claims took some time. Now I have analysed the review—which took a significant chunk of time—and identified the parts that cite the six references. Those constitute around 18% of the body text, mainly the more novel insights.
Qualitatively—and that is clearly more important than quantity—it is exceedingly hard to judge whether the retraction of the six articles nullifies those conclusions and insights. I should furthermore assume that the rest of the review is in order unless (till) proven otherwise. In fairness, I think that if any corrective measure is to be taken, it amounts to a corrigendum noting that the said references have been retracted.
However, I am concerned about the additional workload that investigating the impact of retractions could have if we generally adopt the procedure of publishing corrigenda for every article that they affect. An alternative way of looking at the problem is to acknowledge that retracted references are registered as ‘retracted’ in the scientific indexes (although only if the journal concerned is indexed), and in the venues of publication, and hence on tracing a reference to its source, the reader of the review in which it is cited will see that the particular section of text is no longer supported by a published article.
I am in a quandary between providing the most up to date information in immediate connection with an article and getting into something that could consume significant amounts of already very stretched editorial resources, and then, more importantly, require further corrigenda on the same article if more references are found to be faulty at some point in the future: a seemingly never-ending story...
What is COPE’s advice?
The Forum agreed that the main priority is to inform the journal’s readers of the situation. The advice was to issue an expression of concern, stating the facts, that around 18% of the review text relates to retracted papers. It is then up to readers to evaluate the review and draw their own conclusions. The Forum questioned if the editor believed the article is tainted because the author has already been associated with misconduct. Some suggested contacting the author and asking him if he would like to retract the paper, or contacting the institution for a ruling.
Another suggestion was that the editor could write an editorial discussing the issue and whether removal of the six references alters the conclusions of the paper.
All agreed that the main issue was to alert the readers by way of an expression of concern rather than a correction.
The editor decided to publish an expression of concern which listed the papers referenced in the review article that had since been retracted by the respective journals.