A psychologist's thoughts on how and why we play games

Monday, February 13, 2017

Why retractions are so slow

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to attend a symposium on research integrity. The timing was interesting because, on the same day, Retraction Watch ran a story on two retractions in my research area, the effects of violent media. Although one of these retractions had been quite swift, the other retraction had been three years in coming, which was a major source of heartache and frustration among all parties involved.

Insofar as some of us are concerned about the possible role of fraud as a contaminating influence in the scientific literature, I thought it might be helpful to share what I learned at the symposium. This regards the multiple steps and stakeholders in a retraction process, which may in part be the cause of common frustrations about the opacity and gradualness of the retraction process.

The Process

On paper, the process for handling concerns about a paper looks something like this:
  1. Somebody points out the concerns about the legitimacy of an article.
  2. The journal posts an expression of concern, summarizing the issues with the article.
  3. If misconduct is suspected, the university investigates for possible malfeasance.
  4. If malfeasance is discovered, the article is retracted.
We can see that it is an expression of concern can be posted quickly, whereas a retraction can take years of investigation. Because there is no way to resolve investigations faster, scientific self-correction can be expected to be slow. The exception to this is that, when the authors voluntarily withdraw an article in response to concerns, a retraction no longer requires an investigation.

Multiple stakeholders in investigations

Regarding investigations, it is not always clear what is being done or how seriously concerns are being addressed. In the Retraction Watch story at the top of the article, the plaintiffs spent about three years waiting for action on a data set with signs of tampering.

From the perspective of a scientist, one might wish for a system of retractions that acts swiftly and transparently. Through swiftness, the influence of fraudulent papers might be minimized, and through transparency, one might be appraised of the status of each concern.

Despite these goals, the accused has rights and must be considered innocent until found guilty. The accused, therefore, retains certain rights and protections. Because an ongoing investigation can harm one's reputation and career, oversight committees will not comment on the status or existence of an investigation.

Even when the accused is indeed guilty, they may recruit lawyers to apply legal pressure to universities, journals, or whistleblowers to avoid the career damage of a retraction. This can further complicate and frustrate scientific self-correction.

Should internal investigation really be necessary?

From a researcher's perspective, it's a shame that retraction seems to require a misconduct investigation. Such investigations are time-consuming. It is also difficult to prove intent absent some confession -- this may be why Diederik Stapel has 58 retractions, but only three of eight suspicious Jens Forster papers have been retracted.

Additionally, I'm not sure that a misconduct investigation is strictly necessary to find a paper worthy of retraction. When a paper's conclusions do not follow from the data, or the data are clearly mistaken, a speedy retraction would be nice.

Sometimes we are fortunate enough to see papers voluntarily withdrawn without a full-fledged investigation. Often this is possible only when there is some escape valve for blame: There is some honest mistake that can be offered up, or some collaborator can be offered as blameworthy. For example, this retraction could be lodged quickly because the data manipulation was performed by an unnamed graduate student. Imagine a different case where the PI was at fault -- it would have required years of investigation.


Whistleblowers are often upset that clearly suspicious papers are sometimes labeled only with an expression of concern. These frustrations are exacerbated by the opacity of investigations, in that it is often unclear whether there is an investigation at all, much less what progress has been made in the investigation.

Personally, I hope that journals will make effective use of expressions of concern as appropriate. I also appreciate the efforts of honest authors to voluntarily withdraw papers, as this allows for much
faster self-correction than would be possible if university investigation were necessary.

Unfortunately, detection of malfeasance will remain time-consuming and imperfect. Retraction is quick only when authors are either (1) honest and cooperative, issuing a voluntary withdrawal or (2) dishonest but with a guilty conscience, confessing quickly under scrutiny. However, science still has few tools against sophisticated and tenacious frauds with hefty legal war chests.

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