Fang_PNAS2012_Misconduct Accounts for Most Retractions

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Fang_PNAS2012_Misconduct Accounts for Most Retractions

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  • Misconduct accounts for the majority of retractedscientic publicationsFerric C. Fanga,b,1, R. Grant Steenc,1, and Arturo Casadevalld,1,2

    Departments of aLaboratory Medicine and bMicrobiology, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle, WA 98195; cMediCC! MedicalCommunications Consultants, Chapel Hill, NC 27517; and dDepartment of Microbiology and Immunology, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Bronx, NY 10461

    Edited by Thomas Shenk, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, and approved September 6, 2012 (received for review July 18, 2012)

    A detailed review of all 2,047 biomedical and life-science researcharticles indexed by PubMed as retracted on May 3, 2012 revealedthat only 21.3%of retractionswere attributable to error. In contrast,67.4% of retractions were attributable to misconduct, includingfraud or suspected fraud (43.4%), duplicate publication (14.2%), andplagiarism (9.8%). Incomplete, uninformative or misleading retrac-tion announcements have led to a previous underestimation of therole of fraud in the ongoing retraction epidemic. The percentage ofscientic articles retracted because of fraud has increased 10-foldsince 1975. Retractions exhibit distinctive temporal and geographicpatterns that may reveal underlying causes.

    bibliometric analysis | biomedical publishing | ethics | research misconduct

    The number and frequency of retracted publications are im-portant indicators of the health of the scientic enterprise,because retracted articles represent unequivocal evidence ofproject failure, irrespective of the cause. Hence, retractions areworthy of rigorous and systematic study. The retraction of awedpublications corrects the scientic literature and also providesinsights into the scientic process. However, the rising frequencyof retractions has recently elicited concern (1, 2). Studies of se-lected retracted articles have suggested that error is more com-mon than fraud as a cause of retraction (35) and that rates ofretraction correlate with journal-impact factor (6). We undertooka comprehensive analysis of all retracted articles indexed byPubMed to ascertain the validity of the earlier ndings. Retractedarticles were classied according to whether the cause of re-traction was documented fraud (data falsication or fabrication),suspected fraud, plagiarism, duplicate publication, error, un-known, or other reasons (e.g., journal error, authorship dispute).

    ResultsCauses of Retraction. PubMed references more than 25 millionarticles relating primarily to biomedical research published sincethe 1940s. A comprehensive search of the PubMed database inMay 2012 identied 2,047 retracted articles, with the earliestretracted article published in 1973 and retracted in 1977. Hence,retraction is a relatively recent development in the biomedicalscientic literature, although retractable offenses are not neces-sarily new. To understand the reasons for retraction, we consultedreports from the Ofce of Research Integrity and other publishedresources (7, 8), in addition to the retraction announcements inscientic journals. Use of these additional sources of informationresulted in the reclassication of 118 of 742 (15.9%) retractions inan earlier study (4) from error to fraud. A list of 158 articles forwhich the cause of retraction was reclassied because of consul-tation of secondary sources is provided in Table S1. For example,a retraction announcement in Biochemical and Biophysical Re-search Communications reported that results were derived fromexperiments that were found to have aws in methodologicalexecution and data analysis, giving the impression of error (9).However, an investigation of this article conducted by HarvardUniversity and reported to the Ofce of Research Integrity in-dicated that many instances of data fabrication and falsica-tion were found (10). In another example, a retraction notice

    published by the authors of a manuscript in the Journal of CellBiology stated that In follow-up experiments . . . we have shownthat the lack of FOXO1a expression reported in gure 1 is notcorrect (11). A subsequent report from the Ofce of ResearchIntegrity states that the rst author committed research mis-conduct by knowingly and intentionally falsely reporting . . . thatFOXO1a was not expressed . . . by selecting a specic FOXO1aimmunoblot to show the desired result (12). In contrast to earlierstudies, we found that the majority of retracted articles wereretracted because of some form of misconduct, with only 21.3%retracted because of error. The most common reason for re-traction was fraud or suspected fraud (43.4%), with additionalarticles retracted because of duplicate publication (14.2%) orplagiarism (9.8%). Miscellaneous reasons or unknown causesaccounted for the remainder. Thus, for articles in which thereason for retraction is known, three-quarters were retractedbecause of misconduct or suspected misconduct, and only one-quarter was retracted for error.

    Temporal Trends. A marked recent rise in the frequency of re-traction was conrmed (2, 13), but was not uniform among thevarious causes of retraction (Fig. 1A). A discernible rise in re-tractions because of fraud or error was rst evident in the 1990s,with a subsequent dramatic rise in retractions attributable tofraud occurring during the last decade. A more modest increasein retractions because of error was observed, and increasingretractions because of plagiarism and duplicate publication area recent phenomenon, seen only since 2005. The recent increasein retractions for fraud cannot be attributed solely to an increasein the number of research publications: retractions for fraud orsuspected fraud as a percentage of total articles have increasednearly 10-fold since 1975 (Fig. 1B).

    Geographic Origin and Impact Factor. Retracted articles were auth-ored in 56 countries, and geographic origin was found to varyaccording to the cause for retraction (Fig. 2). The United States,Germany, Japan, and China accounted for three-quarters ofretractions because of fraud or suspected fraud. China and Indiacollectively accounted for more cases of plagiarism than theUnited States, and duplicate publication exhibited a pattern sim-ilar to that of plagiarism. The relationship between journal impactfactor and retraction rate was also found to vary with the cause ofretraction. Journal-impact factor showed a highly signicant cor-relation with retractions because of fraud or error but not withthose because of plagiarism or duplicate publication (Fig. 3 AC).Moreover, the mean impact factors of journals retracting articles

    Author contributions: F.C.F., R.G.S., and A.C. designed research, performed research, an-alyzed data, and wrote the paper.

    The authors declare no conict of interest.

    This article is a PNAS Direct Submission.1F.C.F., R.G.S., and A.C. contributed equally to this work.2To whom correspondence should be addressed. E-mail:

    This article contains supporting information online at

    1702817033 | PNAS | October 16, 2012 | vol. 109 | no. 42

  • because of fraud or error differed signicantly from that of jour-nals retracting articles because of plagiarism or duplicate publi-cation. Accordingly, retractions for fraud or error and retractionsfor plagiarism or duplicate publication were encountered in dis-tinct subsets of journals, with differences in impact factor (Fig. 3D)and limited overlap (Table 1).

    Time-to-Retraction. The time interval between publication andretraction varied according to the cause of retraction, with arti-cles retracted because of fraud taking substantially longer toretract (Table 2). A gradual trend toward increasing time-to-retraction over time was detected (Fig. 4A). Journal-impactfactor did not correlate with time-to-retraction for manuscriptsretracted because of error, plagiarism, or duplicate publication,but did exhibit a modest correlation for manuscripts retractedbecause of fraud in high-impact journals, which tended to exhibita shorter time-to-retraction (Fig. 4B). A small number of authorswere responsible for multiple retractions. Thirty-eight researchgroups with greater or equal to ve retractions accounted for43.9% (n = 390) of retractions for fraud or suspected fraud in themodern biomedical literature (Fig. S1). Nearly all retractedarticles by authors with 10 or more retractions were retractedbecause of fraud (Table S2). This nding is attributable to thediscovery of multiple fraudulent articles during the course ofinvestigation of a single instance of fraud. For example, the re-traction of a 2010 Blood article by Sawada et al. (14) was fol-lowed in rapid succession by the retraction of 30 additionalarticles originating from the laboratory of Naoki Mori (Fig. S2).

    Citation of Retracted Articles. Previous investigators have foundthat many retracted articles continue to be cited as if still validwork (15, 16), but others have documented an immediate effectof retraction on citation frequency (17). Although we did notexamine this question comprehensively, we found considerablevariation among the most frequently cited retracted articles(Table 3). Some retracted articles exhibited a rapid and sus-tained decline in citations following retraction, but others havecontinued to be cited (Fig. S3).

    DiscussionIn addition to conrming a recent rise in the incidence of re-tractions, this study provides a number of additional insights.Perhaps most signicantly, we nd that most retracted articlesresult from misconduct, and nearly half of retractions are forfraud or suspected fraud. In addition to a larger sample sizeencompassing all retractions in the biomedical research litera-ture, this study differs from some previous analyses in the use ofalternative sources of information, such as reports from the Ofce