Articles may be retracted if ethics is neglected

Pär SegerdahlWhen a scientific article is retracted, it means that the article should never have been published and that data and conclusions from the study should not be used to underpin future research.

Articles are often retracted when it is found that the authors acted fraudulently. They may have been careless, or cheated, or have plagiarized someone else’s (or their own!) previous work. Retracted articles may still be available for reading, but with a notice that they are retracted, and with explanations of the reasons behind the decision.

A rarer and less known reason to retract scientific articles is that the study reported does not satisfy ethical requirements for the protection of research participants.

Human research participation should be voluntary and research on humans must first be approved by an ethical review board. Editors of medical journals are bound by the same requirements. They increasingly require that authors state that the research they want to publish has an ethics approval.

How common is it that published articles are retracted because ethical requirements were neglected? How do editors motivate their decision? And what happens afterwards – are the articles cited and used despite the retraction?

Ethical retractions are uninvestigated, but in an article in the journal Accountability in Research Yusuke Inoue (former guest researcher at CRB) and Kaori Muto, present a study of articles retracted for ethical reasons:

One difficulty they mention is that unethical research may still produce scientifically valid data, results and conclusions – although neglect of ethics is a strong warning sign that other demands may have been neglected. Editors must therefore strike a balance between the requirement to retrospectively protect research participants and the scientific value of the article and its results. And if one decides to retract the article for ethical reasons, the research study may have to be repeated with new participants, which is also ethically problematic.

Yusuke Inoue and Kaori Muto studied retracted medical papers in English in the period 1981-2011. They found that the first ethical retractions did not occur until 2000 (2 articles). The number was then relatively constant (14 articles 2001-2010), but increased dramatically in 2011 (83 articles) – most of them related to a research scandal around anesthesiology researcher Joachim Boldt.

Most retraction notices stated as reason for the decision, simply “lack of ethical review.” However, editors rarely explained the decision more closely, for example, if they judged that the whole study was fraudulent, or judged that the study was well done but lacked ethical review. It then becomes unclear how to assess the contents of the retracted article.

Inoue and Muto also found that the majority of articles that were retracted for ethical reasons continued to be quoted. In some cases, it could be established that citations were deliberately misleading (as when authors cite their own retracted articles without mentioning that they are retracted). In other cases, however, retracted articles were cited perfectly legitimately, to specify that data from them had been excluded.

Inoue and Muto’s conclusion is that editors need to explain more clearly the reason behind their ethical retractions, so that future researchers can better assess the content of the articles. Moreover, discussion is needed on how data from articles that were retracted for ethical reasons may be used.

While we’re discussing scientific misconduct, I take the opportunity to link to an American dissertation that shows that often when misconduct is revealed by the Office of Research Integrity, it does not lead to the retraction of articles:

The number of retracted articles thus gives a poor measure of the extent of scientific misconduct. There are many “fraudulent articles” in circulation!

Pär Segerdahl

We recommend readings - the Ethics Blog

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