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J Med Ethics 37:567-570 doi:10.1136/jme.2010.040964
  • Research ethics
  • Paper

Why and how do journals retract articles? An analysis of Medline retractions 1988–2008

  1. Peter Williams2
  1. 1Sideview, Princes Risborough, UK
  2. 2Department of Information Studies, University College, London, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr Elizabeth Wager, Sideview, 19 Station Road, Princes Risborough, HP27 9DE, UK; liz{at}sideview.demon.co.uk
  1. Contributors EW designed the study, collected and analysed data, and wrote the first draft of the paper. PW contributed to the classification system, collected data, carried out the qualitative arm of the study (reported separately), and contributed to the paper.

  • Received 23 October 2010
  • Revised 18 February 2011
  • Accepted 10 March 2011
  • Published Online First 12 April 2011

Abstract

Background Journal editors are responsible for what they publish and therefore have a duty to correct the record if published work is found to be unreliable. One method for such correction is retraction of an article. Anecdotal evidence suggested a lack of consistency in journal policies and practices regarding retraction. In order to develop guidelines, we reviewed retractions in Medline to discover how and why articles were retracted.

Methods We retrieved all available Medline retractions from 2005 to 2008 and a one-in-three random selection of those from 1988 to 2004. This yielded 312 retractions (from a total of 870). Details of the retraction including the reason for retraction were recorded by two investigators.

Results Medline retractions have increased sharply since 1980 and currently represent 0.02% of included articles. Retractions were issued by authors (63%), editors (21%), journals (6%), publishers (2%) and institutions (1%). Reasons for retraction included honest error or non-replicable findings (40%), research misconduct (28%), redundant publication (17%) and unstated/unclear (5%). Some of the stated reasons might have been addressed by corrections.

Conclusions Journals' retraction practices are not uniform. Some retractions fail to state the reason, and therefore fail to distinguish error from misconduct. We have used our findings to inform guidelines on retractions.

Footnotes

  • Funding This study was funded by a research grant from the Committee On Publication Ethics (COPE).

  • Competing interests EW developed the COPE guidelines on retractions and is currently Chair of COPE; PW has no competing interests.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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