Interesting cases of retractions by scientific journals from Retraction Watch

Retraction Watch is a blog that started in 2010 with the objective of publicizing, studying, and contributing to the investigation of retractions in scientific journals of academic research and writing. The validity of academic papers is often held to a vaulted status because of the famed system of vetting through peer review and editorial boards before publication. Identifying mistakes in this context, then, whether through inadvertent technical errors, minor or major, or some intentional misrepresentation or fraudulent conduct, is an interesting and necessary practice in order to uphold academic integrity.

Hundreds of these retractions, many minor but some major or related to malfeasance, occur per year. Thorough investigation and discussion of these issues is important for creating and upholding high standards for integrity for all involved parties – researchers, their communities, the journals where they publish, the academic and general media, and supervisory bodies which are charged with oversight responsibilities over them all.

  • Insufficient controls in review process – “The Case for Colonialism,” Third World Quarterly (2017): This article, by Bruce Gilley, a political science professor at Portland State University, intended to position the history of Western colonialism as basically a reputational problem. This perspective is rooted in a view that said Western colonialism was generally helpful to and necessary for indigenous peoples. Early defences of the publication were on the grounds that the journal does not want to stifle pieces because they are controversial. In response to the publication of this article and the protest provoked by it, fifteen members of the editorial board of Third World Quarterly have now stepped down. Their letter of resignation cites concerns about the peer-review process which they believe that the article did not pass procedurally or substantively. Their criticism was not levelled with the goal of restricting free speech but rather in interests of upholding a high academic standard and honesty in the process.
  • Privacy and consent – “On Separating One from the Other: Images of a Developing Self,” British Journal of Psychotherapy (2016): By nature, articles in medical journals contain very sensitive information about people. As their experiences they had as patients are turned into observations about subjects, does the reasonable expectation of privacy shift at all? Of course, inherent in publishing an article is making the information in it public. People may be okay with having their private clinical information anonymized and shared with the noble objective of contributing to science, but comfort levels with that may change depending on the audience. Patient privacy expectations differ if the publication is available to professionals only or if it may be accessed or shared by anyone, including the public. 
  • Failure to disclose conflict of interest – “Prognostication of Uveal Melanoma: A Work In Progress,” JAMA Ophthalmology (2016): Funding of research and improper disclosure of conflicts of interest related to it is an ongoing concern in many academic areas. For example, it has been suggested that one of the root causes of the 2008 global financial crisis is that economists and other academics writing and speaking publicly made inaccurate or misleading assertions about the health of the global economic system that were motivated by their (unreported) ties to corporate or political entities. Similarly, in scientific research papers reporting on the efficacy of medical treatments and even sometimes recommending specific therapies, may have been funded by pharmaceutical industry entities, raising reasonable questions about the veracity of the papers when the author does not disclose this potential or perceived conflict of interest.   
  • Code of ethics for editorial boards – rejecting papers for ethical concerns (2016): Journals receive submissions which describe work that has already been done, presumably with the permission of the appropriate supervisory authorities when necessary, but sometimes editorial boards may still have lingering “right or wrong” concerns about the work considered or methods used. Journals do not have a universal standard on their handling of articles that are connected to projects that had harmful or destructive methodologies in gathering their data. Some journal representatives feel that the burden does not lie on the journal to retroactively judge the assessment of the supervisory bodies approving and overseeing the research studies. Others feel journals have a moral imperative to set their own progressive standards for ethics in research. 
  • Scientific misconduct – handling of unethical behavior (2011): In some cases a long history of unethical practices emerges in the investigation of research methods for possible retraction of scientific papers. Frank Sauer, a biochemist at University of California Riverside, was accused of misconduct via an anonymous e-mail. The subsequent investigation led to the retraction of numerous papers and the discovery that he had intentionally edited or falsified images used in his work. The university found that some of this behavior was negligent whereas other misconduct was intentional. In this case the investigative committee did not recommend that Sauer be fired but rather go through a variety of other punishments including a publishing ban, freezing merit pay raises, and remedial ethics training. 

Reporting work like that of Retraction Watch helps to show a rare view of this part of the academic process as well as shed light on the outcome of public- or investor-funded research that sometimes may end up discredited due to fraud or misuse of said funds. Disclosing and investigating these practices can be important in raising the standards of not only research itself where needed but also the vetting of work and investigation of possible improprieties to the benefit of the public and other members of the academic research community.

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