The institutionnalization of retraction … or how to reconsider the status of truth of published papers

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Retraction Watch has celebratied its 10th anniversary and its creators have grown from a small blog to a reputable entity, funded by numerous donors, source of academic publications, run by the Center for Scientific Integrity and manager of a database acknowledged for its quality. With the COVID-19 epidemic, the retraction of scientific articles (and even preprints) has become a mainstream media object, fully public beyond the academic communities directly concerned.

The institutionnalization of the website mirrors the one of the retractions themselves, which have become partly normalized into the publshing process as a key part of post-publication peer review. In this post written for the Peer Review 2020 week, which theme is “Trust in peer review”, we wil briefly look at journal policies and how they change the actual trust given to published articles1.

Flagging published articles.
Don’t trust what your read

“Certified”, ” peer-validated”, “peer-reviewed”, all these notions are aimed at different practices but with the same objective: to assert that the text you are reading is not the simple product of authors’ reflections and their exploration of a phenomenon, of theories and observations, but that of a more or less complex process of evaluation of a manuscript by others, not recognised as co-authors but sufficiently knowledgeable about the subject, the methods, the literature, that they indicate to you that this content is valid.

Then, of course, scandals and other fraud cases multiplied, science stars falling one after another, but you could always believe that these were exceptions, special cases, that almost all the articles contained true and proven statements… at least until 2009. That year, the COPE organisation published its first standards2 on retracted articles, showing that it was not only normal, but expected that journals would plan to remove from the scientific canon articles they had previously published. To be more precise, it was a matter of flagging different articles according to the situation:

Journals editors should consider issuing an expression of concern if:…
Journals editors should consider issuing a correction if:…
Journals editors should consider consider retracting a publication if…

In this system, an “expression of concern” casts doubt about an article and warns readers that its content raise some issues. In most cases, it describes information that has been given to the journal, which led it to alert its readers about an ongoing investigation, but does not directly state about the validity of the work.
On the contrary, when it comes to “correction”, it is always stated that the core validity of the original article remains, some parts of its content being lightly or extensively modified. In some cases, the transformations have been carried to such an extent (e.g. every figure have been changed) that some actors have ironically coined the term “mega-correction“ to characterize them. Contrary to an expression of concern, the authors of the article are fully aware of these modifications and, even if they have not written it, do necessarily validate them before the publication of the so-called (mega)correction. If they don’t, journals sometimes publish editorial notes instead of corrections.
Finally, a “retraction” aims at to inform readership that the article validity and/or reliability and/or ethcal background and/or authorship does not stand anymore. Far from being an erasure, it is conceived of as the final step of the publishing record of the original article, as the notice of retraction “should be linked to the retracted article”. A retraction is either conducted in close collaboration with the authors, or against them upon the request of someone else who is explicitly named (e.g. a journal editor-in-chief, a colleague, a funding body…).
Ten years later, COPE produced a second version3 of its guidelines, in which the grounds for retraction were lengthened, such as the use of prohibited material or copyright infrigements. Two motives are of particular interest:

  • It has been published solely on the basis of a compromised or manipulated peer review process
  • The author(s) failed to disclose a major competing interest (a.k.a. conflict of interest) that, in the view of the editor, would have unduly affected interpretations of the work or recommendations by editors and peer reviewers.

It is no longer only the conditions of production of articles that are targeted or its content, but the very processes of evaluation that can be pirated or simply distorted if the relationship of the authors to their object is not revealed. Not only you can’t trust the content of the paper, but you can’t anymore trust the process by which journals certify this content. You can only trust them when they certify they have failed… and these new motives were quickly put to the test.

An Epidemic of retractions?
COVID-19 as a public discussion on papers status

A month after the publication of these guidelines the COVID-19 epidemic began, with the adoption of open science as borders closed. We have already dealt with articles about the HCQ treatment and the Lancetgate that followed, i.e. an ultra-fast but complex case of retraction, which moreover recently led to the commercial journal to change its peer review process. The editors of the Lancet group conclude their op-ed “Learning from a retraction” with unintended irony: “As trusted sources of information, the Lancet journals are committed to ensuring that our editorial processes will continue to be as robust as possible.” Who needs learning from a failure if robustness has always been there?

This highly visible example refers to another phase in the institutionalisation of the retraction object: its public debate, beyond academic circles, The existence of the Retractionwatch database has been acknowledged and the commonness of retraction has become a public concern, for example in this canadian article:

Similarly, a 2019 Leger poll for the Ontario Science Centre found 29 per cent of respondents said that because scientific theories are fluid, they can’t be trusted.. What’s more important than the erosion in trust, says Caulfield, “is a polarization where people are gravitating toward conspiracy theories or messaging (including misinformation) that is trying to increase distrust because those messages either appeal to their ideological leanings or preconceived notions. “My fear is if people don’t trust the good science, don’t trust science from these respected journals, it’s going to be increasingly difficult to fight misinformation because people aren’t going to trust the correction.”

Simultaneously, the same database lead to discussion and even papers in certain scientific communities. Thus, some authors have calculated retraction rates for different topic, in order to assert that the Covid-19 was not only leading to two epidemics: the one on human bodies and another one in l retractions.

From An alarming retraction rate for scientific publications on Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)
Nicole Shu Ling Yeo-Teh & Bor Luen Tang (2020): An alarming retraction rate for scientific publications on Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), Accountability in Research, DOI: 10.1080/08989621.2020.1782203

The founders and employees of Retractionwatch gave a reply themselves in the same journal. Apart from technical remarks about the limitations of the corpus and the inclusion of preprints, the main explanation for these respondents is the speed with which the journals have intervened, where it usually takes years to produce a retraction, not days or weeks.

The institutionalisation of retractions, combined with the focus and urgency of the COVID-19 epidemic, therefore leads to seemingly virtuous behaviour, as journals no longer drag their feet in admitting problems and even communicate widely about retractions, no longer shameful but proud of their professionalism, like The Lancet group journals did. At the risk of giving the articles and more generally the scientific discourse a perfume of permanent reversibility far from the idea of incremental self-correction fo science.

Yesterday’s truth is today’s ignorance.
Living in a post-truth academic world

Far away from the COVID-19 epidemic urgency, what happens to flagged papers through time? Beyond knee-jerk reactions, corrections can be later themselves corrected, retractions can be “unretracted“, expression of concern be itself retracted after 15 years, and some have proposed that “good faith” retractions could be combined with the publication of “replacement” papers4 , while the other ones would be permanent. Besides, there is life after death for scientific publications: retracted papers are still cited, and most of their citations do not take notice of their “zombie” status5.

Instead of incorrectly equating the prevalence of retractions with that of misconduct, some consider the proliferation of flagged articles as a positive trend6. In this vision, the very concrete effects of post-publication peer review do reinforce scientific facts already built through peer review, publication and citation. Symmetrically, as every published article is potentially correctable or retractable, any scientific information rhymes with uncertainty. The visibility given to these flags and policies undermine the very basic components of the economy of science: How long can we collectively trust peer review and consider peer-reviewed knowledge should be the anchor to face a “post-truth” world?

  1. This post is partly adapted from Pontille, David, and Didier Torny. “Beyond Fact Checking: Reconsidering the Status of Truth of Published Articles.“, EASST Review, 36, 1, 2017 []
  2. Wager, E., Barbour, V., Yentis, S., & Kleinert on behalf of COPE Council, S. (2010). Retractions: guidance from the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) []
  3. https://publicationethics.org/files/retraction-guidelines.pdf []
  4. Like this strange story about a paper on sexual practices during the pandemic []
  5. Bar-Ilan, Judit, and Gali Halevi. “Post retraction citations in context: a case study.Scientometrics 113.1 (2017): 547-565. []
  6. Fanelli, Daniele. “Why growing retractions are (mostly) a good sign.PLoS Med 10.12 (2013): e1001563. []

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