Publish to Retract: A new paradigm for research?

Retraction Watch has a story about a retraction accompanied by a blog post by the senior author – who requested the retraction. The senior author receives great credit for her transparency and integrity – no doubt well deserved.

Pamela Ronald does the right thing again, retracting a Science paper

But this is not the first time that a senior author has found a “mistake” in a publication and has then initiated a retraction. I observe that a paper retracted at the request of the author(s) usually leads to the general and admiring approval of the Journal and of peers. It has none of the stigma attached to a paper retracted by the Journal for plagiarism or data falsification or some other wrongdoing.

But looking through my jaundiced and cynical eyes, I wonder if this is just the start of a new paradigm in a brave new transparent world of research publication and retraction. Publish or Perish then gives way to Publish to Retract (or more accurately Publish quickly – to Retract if bad) which is then the name of the game.

  1. Dispense with time consuming data replication and other quality checks
  2. Rush to publication (but keep the retraction request ready)
  3. If any mistakes are subsequently suspected, warn the learned journal  that something is untoward and which is being investigated (best for the senior author to raise the suspicion about a potential mistake)
  4. Maximise citations of the work in question
  5. Find the mistake and request a retraction
  6. Retract in a blaze of publicity and gain brownie points for transparency and integrity

Junior authors – especially post-docs – are of course to be thrown under the proverbial bus. They only represent an acceptable level of collateral damage. Lists of publications may continue to include the retracted paper as long as it is done in the proper form

Author1, author 2….,Senior author x, Journal, Vol., page, date (retracted on date at the request of Senior author x)

Publication can then be very much faster and the potential downsides of mistakes or faulty analysis getting through to publication can be converted into the perceived benefits of transparency and integrity if the failings are ever discovered.

A hundred or so years ago it was not unknown for applicants to the Indian Civil Service to include something like this in their CV’s.

BA, Aligarh University, 1909, (fail)

It was of value for the applicant then to show that he had been accepted to sit for the exam. Having successfully run the gauntlet of peer-review in getting a paper accepted for publication (even if later retracted) could similarly be of some value.

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