A painful remedy

Journal name:
Date published:
Published online
Corrected online

The number of papers being retracted is on the rise, for reasons that are not all bad.

Few experiences can be more painful to a researcher than having to retract a research paper. Some papers die quietly, such as when other scientists find that the work cannot be replicated and simply ignore it. Yet, as highlighted by several episodes in recent years, the most excruciating revelation must be to find not only that a paper is wrong, but that it is the result of fraud or fabrication, which itself requires months or years of investigation. Where once the research seemed something to be exceptionally proud of, the damage caused by fraudulent work can spread much wider, as discovered by associates of the Austrian physicist Jan Hendrick Schön and the South Korean stem-cell biologist Woo Suk Hwang. But whatever the reason for a retraction, all of the parties involved — journals included — need to face up to it promptly.

This year, Nature has published four retractions, an unusually large number. In 2009 we published one. Throughout the past decade, we have averaged about two per year, compared with about one per year in the 1990s, excluding the pulse of retractions of papers co-authored by Schön.

Given that Nature publishes about 800 papers a year, the total is not particularly alarming, especially because only some of the retractions are due to proven misconduct. A few of the Nature research journals have also had to retract papers in recent years, but the combined data do no more than hint at a trend. A broader survey revealed even smaller proportions: in 2009, Times Higher Education commissioned a survey by Thomson Reuters that counted 95 retractions among 1.4 million papers published in 2008. But the same survey showed that, since 1990 — during which time the number of published papers doubled — the proportion of retractions increased tenfold (see http://go.nature.com/vphd17).

So why the increase? More awareness of misconduct by journals and the community, an increased ability to create and to detect unduly manipulated images, and greater willingness by journals to publish retractions must account for some of this rise. One can also speculate about the increasing difficulty for senior researchers of keeping track of the detail of what is happening in their labs. This is of concern not just because of the rare instances of misconduct, but also because of the risk of sloppiness and of errors not being caught. Any lab with more than ten researchers may need to take special measures if a principal investigator is to be able to assure the quality of junior members' work.

The need for quality assurance and the difficulties of doing it are exacerbated when new techniques are rapidly taken up within what is often a highly competitive community. And past episodes have shown the risk that collaborating scientists — especially those who are geographically distant — may fail to check data from other labs for which, as co-authors, they are ultimately responsible.

If we at Nature are alerted to possibly false results by somebody who was not an author of the original paper, we will investigate. This is true even if the allegations are anonymous — some important retractions in the literature have arisen from anonymous whistle-blowing. However, we are well aware of the great damage that can be done to co-authors as a result of such allegations, especially when the claims turn out to be false. Such was the case with a recent e-mail alert widely distributed by a group calling itself Stem Cell Watch (see Nature 467, 1020; 2010) — an action that we deplore.

For our part, we are sensitive to such concerns and will bear in mind the need to protect the interests of authors until our obligation to the community at large becomes clear. But then we will publish a retraction promptly, and link to it prominently from the original papers. We will also list the retraction on our press release if the original paper was itself highlighted to the media.

Ultimately, it comes down to the researchers — those most affected by the acts — to remain observant and diligent in pursuing their concerns wherever they lead, and where necessary, to correct the literature promptly. Too often, such conscientious behaviour is not rewarded as it should be.

Change history

Corrected online 18 November 2010
This article has a correction associated with it as it misspelt the name of physicist Jan Hendrik Schön as 'Hendrick' and incorrectly gave his nationality as Austrian. He was born in Germany.


  1. Report this comment #15467

    Anurag Chaurasia said:

    Other scientific journals too should follow the effective measures taken by Nature (NPG) to retract the research papers.
    Anurag chaurasia,ICAR,India,anurag_vns1@yahoo.co.in,anurag@nbaim.org,+919452196686(M)

  2. Report this comment #15468

    Mao Sheng Yang said:

    The misconducts of scientific research are common issues that have been brought into the public spotlight many times (see Nature Neuroscience 5, 1249; 2002). Why the increase? Several reasons might be responsible for that are listed as the follows: (1) stress from the “publish or perish”; (2) there is a tough competition for the professional position; (3) the limitation of research grants; (4) the number of researchers is increased greatly. Therefore, the joint efforts from the government, the public and the scientific community are essential to overcome these misconducts.

  3. Report this comment #15493

    Paul Adams said:

    Clearly the retraction rate is much higher at "Nature" than for scientific journals as a whole. This appears to arise because Nature prefers to publish work from the most "successful" labs, or research that is strongly endorsed by "leaders". These successful leaders are almost by definition the ones with the least time or incentive to check every detail, and who are the last to be the subject of skeptical scrutiny and criticism, and the most entrenched in the ideas of the past. Indeed, it has almost reached the point that publication in "Nature" is the final nail in the coffin of exhausted ideas: the King in his bunker is always last to know that his dominion has collapsed.

  4. Report this comment #15512

    Elaine Ellerton said:

    It sounds like this "Stem Cell Watch" group might be a disguise for those that just don't approve of stem cell research. I bet it wouldn't take too much digging to find out who they really are.

  5. Report this comment #15520

    Stephan Lloyd Watkins said:

    To me two things stand out in such a thing. First, no one deserves nor desires to be harassed, and it is illegal in most places with differing laws. One can always pass on things to the police if they feel harassed. With this sort of thing though, it can easily be exploited by media, groups, or the perpetrators to just cause problems.

    The other part though is scrutiny in general. Personally I hate when criticism arises from someone who has no idea of the subject matter involved, and thus can not really critique the work. This does not mean a degree, just knowledge of a particular subject. Still, if wide spectrum criticism becomes common, Nature, or equivalent magazines would not be able to mount the manpower necessary to review everything, after all if it is pushed, it can incorporate a dozen 200 page lab books or equal data volume.

    A problem arises when scientist can exploit this fact, knowing the review process may pass them by, or worse simply fabricate data which a reviewer can not always see clearly as they did not sit there next to the experimenter. In addition, as mentioned in the article, some people can just push something aside, and hope it disappears. This one, I feel is self correcting, as if the literature is followed, the incorrect data is quickly swamped out, and it becomes clear to any intelligent person that this one publication is a bit "screwy".

    But, "who cares"? I personally do, or did in the past when I had originally wished to devote a life long career to academia. It is not only time wasting, but if one enters projects from a starting point, you can waist a large portion of your life, efforts that could have produced something, just to find out something was fabricated and essentially just sends you off on false prospects. Thus, such a thing not only constitutes an economic impact that is not seen in the normal modes of research analysis for the federal governments, but also can cause as much damage as some "wing nut" group harassing someone, or worse sabotaging someones work. It is also, now in the US, listed as an act of terrorism under the unchanged guidelines from Bush, left intact by the new administration. This means you could do 15 years if someone proves you actually fabricated data for the sole purpose of misleading your colleagues, or anyone else working on similar things within the US. British Law is similar, but I am not familiar with this.

    Thus "Stem cell watch" could be popped if they/he/she actually violated harassment laws, but so could someone whom purposefully falsified data. In the US, they could have tried the Korean Group from a few years back under such laws.


    Stephan Lloyd Watkins

  6. Report this comment #15552

    H T said:

    The problem with "Stem Cell Watch" is they are wasting the journal's time and capacity in dealing with other anonymous whistleblowing. Imagine that you are the editor and you receive dozens of these allegations every week. The obvious outcome is that all anonymous 'tips' will be disregarded, thus making it more difficult for genuine allegations to reach the editors' ears without exposing the whistleblower's identity. If I were a conspiracy theorist, I would suspect this so-called "Stem Cell Watch" group to be protecting those fraudsters by exhausting the journals.

  7. Report this comment #15720

    Peiman Hematti said:

    It is amazing as why no attention is being paid to those papers, and they are many of them, which their results can never be replicated and as the editorial mentioned they just "die quietly". What is the difference between papers that nobody could duplicate their results after trying and the papers that are retracted so nobody tries to duplicate anymore? There are so many papers out there that, for whatever reasons, their results can not be duplicated in other labs; should we try to retract those papers too?

  8. Report this comment #17411

    Alan Price said:

    As a longtime (since 1989) expert in research misconduct investigations and findings, including retractions of publications, for the U.S. Government (HHS Office of Research Integrity) and as a consultant (Price Research Integrity Consultant Experts), I applaud the leadership of the editors of Nature and some of its sister journals in biomedical sciences to see that retractions are issued and explained. It is important for the scientific community to know the reason for a retraction of a publication — if one or more persons falsified or fabricated or plagiarized the research in question, then the retraction should explicitly state that fact (that the research was the result of research misconduct by a named author or staff member).

    While it is possible that retractions are made for honest errors or incompetence, when I studied all the MEDLINE retractions about 6 years ago, I found that (given my 17 years in ORI with knowledge of HHS, NSF, and other public misconduct cases) I could identify about 70% of them as involving research misconduct (and it might be an even higher fraction); thus, there is a definite "taint" to a retraction.

    ORI publishes its findings, including the retractions, naming the individual(s) who committed the misconduct, in the NIH Guide, Federal Register, and on its ORI website. Editors should do the same, as part of the retraction or in an editorial letter that accompanies it. This allows the "clearing" of the other coauthors, who were "victims" of that misconduct and whose reputation should not be tarnished just because they were a coauthor [rarely is there a conspiracy proven in misconduct cases — essentially all misconduct is committed by individuals who acted alone (or sometimes who forced other staff to go along)].

    It troubles me when an institution makes a finding of research misconduct and then declines to --, or negotiates (in a settlement to get the guilty party to resign and leave) away the institution's right to — notify the editor of the journal that a publication should be retracted or corrected. Leaving this to the guilty party, without direct supervision and control by the institutional research integrity officer, puts the editor in an uninformed position; some guilty respondents will claim to the editor that they made "errors" or will try to get the editor to let them "substitute corrected" data. But most of the fine editors, with whom I worked with in my years in ORI, wanted to make the retractions themselves, given and institutional and/or ORI finding, or insist that the guilty respondent do so with public acceptance of their guilt and acknowledgment that other coauthors were not aware and not responsible for the falsified and fabricated results.

    These editors should be applauded for their strength and commitment to integrity in their journals. I hosted for ORI a meeting of 20 such distinguished editors in the early 1990s at NIH in which we discussed how they could take such actions and ORI could support them. This work needs to continue with today's fine editors.

  9. Report this comment #57140

    Diana Dragos said:

    I'm glad to see that here you are retracting papers if someone has proves of fraud.

    For example Romanian Prime Minister, Victor Ponta was caught with his PhD Thesis, he had commited fraud and it was a big scandal about it.

    The results? He still keeps the PhD.

    If i remember corectly, he was revelead here (nature.com)

    Webmastar @ Couple Photography

Subscribe to comments

Additional data