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Why unethical papers should be retracted
  1. William Bülow1,
  2. Tove E Godskesen2,3,
  3. Gert Helgesson4,
  4. Stefan Eriksson3
  1. 1 Department of Philosophy, Stockholms Universitet, Stockholm, Sweden
  2. 2 Department of Health Care Sciences, Ersta Sköndal Bräcke University College, Stockholm, Sweden
  3. 3 Centre for Research Ethics and Bioethics, Uppsala Universitet, Uppsala, Sweden
  4. 4 Stockholm Centre for Healthcare Ethics, Department of Learning, Informatics, Management and Ethics, Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden
  1. Correspondence to Dr William Bülow, Department of Philosophy, Stockholms Universitet, 104 05 Stockholm, Sweden; william.bulow{at}


The purpose of retracting published papers is to maintain the integrity of academic research. Recent work in research ethics has devoted important attention to how to improve the system of paper retraction. In this context, the focus has primarily been on how to handle fraudulent or flawed research papers and how to encourage the retraction of papers based on honest mistakes. Less attention has been paid to whether papers that report unethical research—for example, research performed without appropriate concern for the moral rights and interests of the research participants—should be retracted. The aim of this paper is to examine to what extent retraction policies of academic journals and publishers address retractions of unethical research and to discuss critically various policy options and the reasons for accepting them. The paper starts by reviewing retraction policies of academic publishers. The results show that many journals do not have explicit policies for how to handle unethical research. Against this background, we then discuss four normative arguments for why unethical research should be retracted. In conclusion, we suggest a retraction policy in light of our empirical and normative investigations.

  • research ethics
  • publication ethics
  • applied and professional ethics

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  • Contributors WB introduced the theme for the paper and wrote a first version of the text related to the normative analysis. TEG carried out the literature review. TEG and SE conducted the analysis of the empirical data and wrote the first version of the text relating to the procedures and findings of this review. All authors were involved in discussions of the paper and revised the manuscript at several occasions, contributing with new ideas and arguments and other improvements of the manuscript. All authors approved the final version.

  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

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