Retraction trend continues: what are the implications for future research publications?

Written by Alexandra Thompson

Another Nature stem cell article has been retracted, indicating the STAP retraction legacy is not yet over.

Another Nature retraction

A new Nature paper has been retracted as “new data have brought to light that the original conclusions are not as robust as presented in the original paper” (see here). The now infamous STAP papers were retracted in July to much media and social media attention; however, other papers have been retracted since, with less public commentary. Researchers need to publish their work in order to receive funding, which seems to be getting harder and harder to acquire, therefore requiring more and more work by researchers to ‘prove’ they are worthy of funding, resulting in an intense pressure on their part to produce data and get published, something that has been implicated as a factor in misconduct in the lab.

Should we be worried?

A quick search online seems to indicate that retractions have been generally increasing across the board (different journals and scientific fields) owing to both misconduct and accidental errors. Unfortunately, no career or community will ever be without those who make intentional or accidental errors. The explanations for the increasing number of retractions of scientific papers are plentiful, and include explanations indicating that the number of errors being spotted is increasing rather than the number being made (e.g., papers reaching a wider audience and therefore getting noticed more) and others suggesting that more errors or misconduct is occurring (pressure for researchers to be published to receive funding, etc.).

Although on the surface retractions of papers are of course a disappointment to both the publisher and authors, they do not necessarily mean the work is invalid or fraudulent (a word that should be used with extreme caution until definite evidence has been presented and not lightly). It simply means that more investigation is required until results can without doubt be confirmed or denied, one way or the other. Although the increased number of retractions occurring generally and in the stem cell field may need to be addressed, they should be seen as a positive — they indicate that the community is in fact self-critical and aiming to have the highest standards.

How thorough can or should peer review be?

The job of peer reviewers is it check the scientific accuracy of the paper, but the only true test of accuracy is whether or not results can be replicated by others post publication. However, publishers do of course have a responsibility to ensure the highest standards of peer review possible and to publish scientifically accurate journals.

Moving forward

It seems that this current trend may continue. It would be interesting to know how the stem cell and regenerative medicine field fares compared with others for rate of retractions.

What do you think: should we even be worried? Is this normal progression of improved data review or is there an endemic problem that needs to be addressed? Do there need to be changes in how scientific research is conducted? Should publishers be changing their process too?