Journals need to explain the reasons behind a retraction

Researchers want us to believe that science is transparent and self-correcting. When someone makes a mistake, he or she owns up to it. That’s what corrections and retractions are for.

But that’s not what happens at some medical journals.

Instead, retraction notices read like doublespeak:

“The authors have identified inconsistencies within the data that may have affected the results of the study.”

That one turned out to be because of faked data. You wouldn’t know it from the notice. We only found out at Retraction Watch when we pushed the authors.

Or, worse, the retraction notices contain no information at all:

“This article has been withdrawn by the authors.”

When Retraction Watch calls to find out what’s behind these opaque notices, we often get “none of your damn business” or “no comment.

And even when retraction notices are more informative, many journals do nothing to publicize them — despite the fact that the original study generated tons of buzz.

How is that serving science?

Journal editors who fail to say why a retraction is taking place have abdicated their responsibility – to readers, to patients, and to taxpayers.

Some of these cases involve fraud that has been investigated by universities, or the NIH’s Office of Research Integrity. Editors may claim they face legal risks for saying too much.

Tough.

If that’s the case, they are not standing behind the integrity of what’s in their journals.

They should go into a safer, less intellectually rigorous field. Spin doctoring. Or used car sales.

We all deserve better from our journal editors, who want to be the gatekeepers of what’s scientifically proven.

George Lundberg is a MedPage Today Editor-at-Large and former editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Originally published in MedPage Today. Visit MedPageToday.com for more health policy news.

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  • Dave Miller

    Well put! With all the politicization of science going on these days, it behooves journal editors to take the extraordinary step (although it ought to be normal) and actually out scientists who publish fraudulent data and ought to own up to the fact that they allowed the dribble to be published in the first place. Not only is the public perception of science harmed by these lapses, the very integrity of science is weakened in the process.

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