The Retraction Procedure at Frontiers

by Gearoid Faolean, Frontiersin.org

As an academic publisher, Frontiers utilizes peer review to ensure academic rigor is applied to all manuscripts submitted to our journals. Frontiers system of peer review, using our unique Collaborative Review Forum and supplemented by a number of in-house quality checks, ensures quality at scale and has a high satisfaction rate among its users. Despite a rigorous process and clear criteria for acceptance and rejection of manuscripts, no system is entirely fool proof and retractions are an occasional and unfortunate, but necessary, resort for some published papers.

Articles are retracted in proven cases of scientific misconduct, major errors – including honest – and various forms of publishing malfeasance listed below. Retractions are first and foremost about correcting the scientific literature and ensuring the integrity of published research.

As a member of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), Frontiers abides by their guidelines and recommendations in cases of potential retraction. Frontiers also abides by two other key principles, as recommended by COPE:

  • Retractions are not about punishing authors.
  • Retraction statements should be public and linked to the original, retracted article.

While all potential retractions are subject to an internal investigation and will be judged on their own merits, Frontiers considers the following reasons as giving cause for concern and potential retraction:

  • Clear evidence that findings are unreliable, either as a result of misconduct (e.g. data fabrication) or honest error (e.g. miscalculation or experimental error)
  • Findings have previously been published elsewhere without proper attribution, permission or justification (i.e. cases of redundant publication)
  • Major plagiarism
  • The reporting of unethical research, the publication of an article that did not have the required ethics committee approval
  • Legal issues pertaining to the content of the article e.g. libellous content
  • Major authorship issues i.e. proven or strongly suspected cases of ghostwriting or sold (‘gift’) authorship
  • Politically-motivated articles where objectivity is a serious concern
  • The singling out of individuals or organisations for attack
  • Faith issues (e.g. intelligent design)
  • Papers that have made extraordinary claims without concomitant scientific or statistical evidence (e.g. pseudoscience)

The decision to retract an article is not made lightly. As noted above, articles that are the cause of complaint or serious concern are subject to an investigation, as per COPE guidelines. Such investigations involve senior editorial staff and Chief Editors of the relevant journal. If necessary, external experts can be called upon to provide independent assessment. All such decisions to retract are based on consensus between the Chief Editors and executive staff in the Frontiers editorial office.

While retractions are an unfortunate reality for authors, editors and academic publishers, they are necessary for correcting the scientific record. Further, it is incumbent upon a publisher to consider retraction in case of serious error or proven publishing malfeasance. Furthermore, while rates of retraction vary across publishers, this is not indicative of the quality thereof.

In 2014-2015, our rate of retraction was 0.03%. To investigate if this rate is in-line with other publishers, we selected several major Open Access (OA) publishers as well some major publishers who have a range of subscription-only, Gold OA hybrid and fully OA journals.

The rate of retraction of the first group is 0.07% and 0.02% for the latter. While reasons for retraction are varied, an analysis of a sample of 90 retraction notices found that plagiarism and self-plagiarism are the most common reasons.

In combination, they were the cause of 49% of our sampled retractions. This was followed by erroneous, flawed or fabricated data and the submission of papers without the consent of all the co-authors. A recent study on retractions that considered a much larger sample has also recognized plagiarism and misconduct as the first causes for retractions. The article is a pre-print.

As noted above, it is incumbent upon all publishers to investigate legitimate complaints and concerns regarding published articles. And, where necessary, retract such articles in order to ensure the integrity of the scientific record. In cases where readers have concerns about published articles at Frontiers, they can follow our complaints procedure here.