Authors slow to retract ‘fraudulent’ papers

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One year after Germany's biggest fraud scandal became public (see Nature 387, 442; 1997), only two of the 47 scientific papers tainted have been retracted, says the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung.

According to the newspaper, some co-authors are reluctant to allow retraction out of fear that their careers may be damaged if their names become associated with the fraud. Some young co-authors are said to have threatened to sue the committees investigating the fraud, rather than supporting them by retracting papers.

The Süddeutsche Zeitung asked the 19 journals that published most of the papers believed by investigating committees to be fraudulent how they had handled the case. The two papers that have been retracted were in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and in EMBO Journal. According to the newspaper's survey, many of the other journals, including the Journal of Biological Chemistry, the Journal of Immunology and FEBS Letters, claimed that they were completely unaware of the affair.

In seven cases Friedhelm Herrmann, professor of medicine at the University of Ulm — one of the two researchers accused of the fraud, and corresponding author of most of the publications — refused the requests of journal editors to retract papers.

Herrmann says he was unaware that fabrication of data was taking place in his laboratory. Much of the contested work took place in the laboratory headed by Herrmann at the Max Delbrück Centre for Molecular Medicine in Berlin in the early 1990s.

Scientific journals have different policies on the retraction of papers. Some require only the consent of the corresponding author, while others require the agreement of every co-author.

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Schiermeier, Q. Authors slow to retract ‘fraudulent’ papers. Nature 393, 402 (1998). https://doi.org/10.1038/30807

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