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Peer review: When “corrections” should really be retractions

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From Retraction Watch:

One of the complaints we often hear about the self-correcting nature of science is that authors and editors seem very reluctant to retract papers with obvious fatal flaws. Indeed, it seems fairly clear that the number of papers retracted is smaller than the number of those that should be.

They highlight a new study by Arturo Casadevall, Grant Steen, and Ferric Fang, on how retraction can be circumvented:

Here’s the abstract (emphasis ours):

Retraction of flawed articles is an important mechanism for correction of the scientific literature. We recently reported that the majority of retractions are associated with scientific misconduct. In the current study, we focused on the subset of retractions for which no misconduct was identified, in order to identify the major causes of error. Analysis of the retraction notices for 423 articles indexed in PubMed revealed that the most common causes of error-related retraction are laboratory errors, analytical errors, and irreproducible results. The most common laboratory errors are contamination and problems relating to molecular biology procedures (e.g., sequencing, cloning). Retractions due to contamination were more common in the past, whereas analytical errors are now increasing in frequency. A number of publications that have not been retracted despite being shown to contain significant errors suggest that barriers to retraction may impede correction of the literature. In particular, few cases of retraction due to cell line contamination were found despite recognition that this problem has affected numerous publications. An understanding of the errors leading to retraction can guide practices to improve laboratory research and the integrity of the scientific literature. Perhaps most important, our analysis has identified major problems in the mechanisms used to rectify the scientific literature and suggests a need for action by the scientific community to adopt protocols that ensure the integrity of the publication process.

The authors — like us — are troubled by corrections that by all accounts should have been retractions. They cite several illustrative cases: …

But, take heart. Every self-assured pop science writer knows that “science is self-correcting.”

(It’s just that sometimes you have to threaten it with exposure first.)

Note: The emphasis here is on faults and failures that vitiate results rather than apparent wilful misconduct such as falsification of results. How about, every paper that should never have left the lab should be retracted?

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I think one of the problems is prestige. There needs to be a way to say "I was wrong" without it killing your credibility overall. Right now, retracting a paper usually means something unethical. We need to have a middle ground, where the author declares, "I think this is wrong in important ways that I discovered later." johnnyb

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