The challenges of retraction: cleaning up the literature might be difficult

Source: The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition copyright ©2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Updated in 2009. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

Fonte: The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language4.

A recent post¹ on this blog by Ernesto Spinak dealt with the retraction of different types of plagiarism in academic publications. This post was based on an article published in Nature². The article analyses the various types of plagiarism which occur most frequently, and concluded that not all plagiarism requires a retraction, only those items which appropriate the ideas, innovative methodologies and concepts of others. In the opinion of Praveen Chaddah, the author of an article which was plagiarized on two separate occasions, the rejection of an article because parts of its introduction have been copied could prevent consistent and relevant results from being published. In cases such as this, the procedure which should be followed is a retraction or correction, depending on the level of infringement represented.

In this week’s Nature editorial³, the topic of retraction raises its head once again. The editorial deals with the generally agreed view that misconduct in academic publishing should be remedied at the earliest possible moment. However, there are a number of ethical, moral and legal implications which are connected with the reputation of journals and researchers in the retraction process.

When an author or group of authors realizes that there is an error in the results or in the interpretation in an already published article, it is their responsibility to get hold of the editor of the journal in question and submit a retraction. Such an action shows a strong sense of discipline and ethical behavior given that the consequences of a retraction for the researcher, the researcher’s institution and the journal itself are not always positive. Indeed, because they fear such consequences, many prefer to hold back a retraction and let the article pass under the radar. However, when it is simply a case of admitting an honest mistake, the act of retraction should be a source of credit to the author.

It is for this reason that cases of retraction in high impact journals refer primarily to cases of intentional academic misconduct which have been detected by investigation. It is in these cases that retractions become complicated because the institutions concerned fear for their reputation. The journals, on the other hand, may face long legal proceedings filed by the author of the retracted article if the findings are disputed.

Even in situations where the institution and the journal publisher agree to publish a retraction, there may be conflicts between the interests of the parties involved. For example, as stated in the article in Nature (2014), “An institution might be bound by confidentiality agreements and therefore unable to release the results of its scientific investigations, leaving editors in the dark as to the circumstances behind erroneous work”. For this reason, and to avoid lengthy lawsuits, journal publishers often prefer avoiding publishing retractions.

Even so, there was an increase in the number of retractions in Nature in 2013 and 2014. For decades, the number of retractions in this journal had remained at one or two per year, principally due to honest mistakes rather than fraud. How, then, can this increase be explained? According to the editorial, there is only speculation. Currently electronic mechanisms for the detection of plagiarism are being widely used, and the increase in the number of retractions could be, in part, due to their use. Nevertheless, the publication dates of articles retracted in the last two years are between 1994 and 2014. Another interpretation is that the errors derive from a lack of reproducibility of research performed in laboratories under high pressure to generate results and publications.

An aspect to be considered is undoubtedly the waste of resources on research that ends up producing erroneous results, either intentionally or unintentionally. However, the resources involved in litigation by the interested parties – institutions, authors and journals – in protecting their reputations are also not negligible. In any case, when all the variables are considered, it is of the utmost importance to retract erroneous publications.


¹ Ethical publishing – should plagiarized pieces be retracted ? – well, perhaps not all. SciELO in Perspective. [viewed 05 October 2014]. Available from:

² CHADDAH, P. Not all plagiarism requires a retraction. Nature. 2013, vol. 511, nº. 7508. Available from:

³ Retraction challenges. Cleaning up the literature can be difficult. Nature 514, 5 (02 October 2014) doi:10.1038/514005a. Available from:

4 The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition copyright ©2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Updated in 2009. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.


lilianAbout Lilian Nassi-Calò

Lilian Nassi-Calò studied chemistry at Instituto de Química – USP, holds a doctorate in Biochemistry by the same institution and a post-doctorate as an Alexander von Humboldt fellow in Wuerzburg, Germany. After her studies, she was a professor and researcher at IQ-USP. She also worked as an industrial chemist and presently she is Coordinator of Scientific Communication at BIREME/PAHO/WHO and a collaborator of SciELO.


Translated from the original in Portuguese by Nicholas Cop Consulting.


Como citar este post [ISO 690/2010]:

NASSI-CALÒ, L. The challenges of retraction: cleaning up the literature might be difficult [online]. SciELO in Perspective, 2014 [viewed ]. Available from:


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