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Retractions of scientific papers usually occur because the data presented are found to be inaccurate, and the conclusions incorrect. This is often due to deliberate fabrication or falsification of data. These papers are retracted as to have them on the scientific record would lead to additional misconceptions, errors or inaccurate conclusions. One of the problems with scientific publication is that once something has been published, it continues to be used and cigted, often without reference to or knowledge of any errata or corrections that might be published subsequently. Researchers are very reticent to have their papers retracted when errors are found, mostly because retractions might be associated with misconduct and data fabrication in publication, and result in significant embarrassment for authors and journals.
PLOS Blogs currently have a very interesting discussion about the role of retractions in scientific publication, and there is also some very interesting discussion in the comments. This blog can be accessed here: The role of retractions in correcting the scientific literature.
What do you think? Is it correct to edit the scientific record by retracting articles that are likely to be incorrect, or is there a risk that the transparency of the scientific process becomes obscured by subsequent editing? Does the increasing rate of retractions mean that scientific publication is becoming more or less reliable? What happens to the importance of a trail of evidence in research if papers are retracted?
How interesting. Here's a recent article by Art Caplan, a respected US bioethicist, commenting on the role of fraud in retractions of papers.
The recent review in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that he refers to can be found here: http://www.pnas.org/content/109/42/17028.abstract
Thanks Susan - the Andrew Wakefield example referenced here is really interesting as I still hear, almost weekly, of parents who want to avoid vaccination because they have heard that it is harmful to children - so in spite of a retraction and being discredited, the harm done initially carries on. I wonder why the media did not make as much of a meal of his retraction as they did of the 'harm' in vaccination story. It is good to know that the system to identify fraud is working, on the whole, to make sure that fraudulent research is removed from the record.