Tackling retractions based on scientific-fraud – Conventional and emerging solutions

Drivers of debate regarding scientific misconduct and paper-retraction. Clockwise listed: open communication, Dr. E. Bik, Cheshire, PUBPEER, RetractionWatch

The university (RuGroningen) course on scientific integrity sparked many debates regarding research ethics, while in addition it shed some light on misconduct that happens as a part of research methodology and publication. Personally, some interesting discussions during the semester were regarding how to prevent misconduct and rigorously spread awareness about integrity in the scientific community. In this essay, I would like to focus on the problem of article retraction. In addition, I will discuss some conventional and emerging solutions that are being proven effective in tackling the problem of scientific-fraud leading to retraction.

Retractions are happening. Till date, the analysis of retraction data has brought some remarkable conclusions to the scientific community. It has been studied that retractions happen regardless of gender, journals and publication houses, and are not limited to specific countries [1, 2]. It is always considered a success for science whenever a paper is withdrawn due to scientific misconduct, which is a common cause of retraction [3]. However, a lack of awareness exists regarding these papers, as they are cited often post-retraction [4]. Nevertheless, scientific-misconduct is not always the reason for retraction [5] and retractions based on errors are more common than fraud. Therefore it becomes very important to discuss openly the reasons for retraction and not be too quick to call it fraud [5]. A study shows that scientific-misconduct is an indirect product of academic culture, peer-control, and monetary incentives. As stated earlier, retractions happen regardless of one’s country, although the country scenario indeed influences the magnitude of retractions [2].

Referring to the literature on retraction-studies, here under are listed some major causes of retractions [3, 6]:

  • Fraud: Scientific misconduct, compromised review process
  • Error and mistakes
  • Authorship issues
  • Journal issues
  • Conflict of interest
  • Other causes

Until now, the literature on retraction-studies is not only focused on analyzing and characterizing retractions, but also discusses the solutions and platforms to police scientific-misconduct and prevent retractions. A study [7] found that the resolution of inappropriate image duplication concerns after publication required an average of 6 h of journal staff time per published paper, whereas the screening and correction of papers before publication required an average of 30 minutes of staff time per problematic paper. This indicates that significant improvement may be achieved if solutions are focused on preventing retractions and scientific misconducts.

Fraud involves scientific misconduct in terms of data-falsification, image manipulation or unethical research practices. In addition, it includes compromised review process where peer- review is unethical and biased against scientific ethics. A major cause for retraction is data falsification, especially image falsification (manipulation and duplication) [7, 8]. Cropping of image and beautification are additional means of deliberate image modification but are not always a misconduct. Errors and mistakes that lead to retractions are common, and are not deliberate mis-conduct. However, the impact of retracted papers remains strong as many of these are cited irrespective of their retraction status. Therefore, this problem requires a common solution.

Solutions: Conventional platforms for discussing scientific-fraud are generally listed to be:
● Discussion with supervisor or departmental head
● Reaching out to human resources of the faculty or department
● Communicating with the research ethics and scientific integrity office

These conventional platforms provide a well established framework to oppose unethical practices among peers or in the local department and therefore should be made use of during such problems. ‘Retractionwatch’, and ‘PubPEER’ are the two emerging platforms that are active in raising awareness in the scientific community, providing space to participate in rational discussion and draw attention to the possibility of scientific misconduct. Retractionwatch is a blog and database that reports and informs about retractions of scientific articles. As of 14 January 2020, the Retractionwatch database contains more than 21788 papers (https://www.retractionwatch.com/). PubPEER (https://pubpeer.com) is an online platform for post-publication peer-review and discussion. Many publication-houses are not interested in showing PubPeer comments directly on their websites, and to tackle that, PubPEER provides “browser extensions” thus allowing you to read PubPEER comments while a reader is going through literature. It is worth to note that the retractions based on errors, data-falsification and image-manipulations are just the tip of the iceberg. Thus, reviewers, readers and publishers should learn how to stay critical of all papers during peer-review process and while reading literature. Dr. E.Bik, a scientist from Stanford, involved actively in policing for image- manipulation demonstrated that image falsification/manipulation was found to occur in 3 major ways: (i)Simple duplication (ii)Duplication with repositioning (iii)Duplication with alteration [8]. Using this information, one can prepare themselves for scientific vigilance while reading articles. Dr. E.Bik, commented “…we can only catch the simple errors” [8] and “..you only notice it when you know it exists”. Therefore, another solution is to introduce discussion-clubs between university students and professors promoting scientific discussion regarding rational criticism or appraisal of an article.

While fraud is a major cause of retractions, there are other factors (listed above) that lead to retraction of an article. Therefore in brief, here are some means by which an individual or an institution can prevent or control practices that might lead to retraction irrespective of scientific misconduct:

  • Individuals should use various tools to detect and beware of scientific misconduct
    • Plagiarism detection: SimTexter, GoogleScholar, iThenticate, Grammarly
    • Statistics check: R package statcheck (v1.0.1)
    • Use PubPEER browser extension to minimize citation of retracted papers
  • Universities should:
    • Include courses on ethics, authorship and integrity, thus providing a proper exposure to students from the undergraduate level [9, 10].
    • As stated previously in the introduction, scientific-misconduct is an indirect product of academic culture, peer-control, and monetary incentives. Efforts will prove to be most effective if they are focused on promoting research integrity policies, improving mentoring and training, and encouraging transparent communication amongst researchers [9].
  • For journals and publication-houses:
    • By providing detailed review guidelines journals can train reviewers to identify data-falsification and image duplication during peer-review [1, 7].
    • Journals should update and strictly adhere to their retraction policy based on a rational and impartial scientific code of conduct [11].

To conclude, the first step in solving a problem is acknowledging that there is one. As a scientific community, we have taken the first step in acknowledging the problem of scientific- misconduct and retraction. Nevertheless, we have to make greater contribution while practicing science and upholding our moral compass such that referring a scientist means something more.


  1. Qi X, Deng H, Guo X. 2017. Characteristics of retractions related to faked peer reviews: an
    overview. Postgrad. Med. J. 93: 499–503.
  2. Fanelli D, Costas R, Fang FC, Casadevall A, et al. 2019. Testing Hypotheses on Risk
    Factors for Scientific Misconduct via Matched-Control Analysis of Papers Containing
    Problematic Image Duplications. Sci. Eng. Ethics 25: 771–89.
  3. Campos-Varela I, Ruano-Raviña A. 2019. Misconduct as the main cause for retraction. A
    descriptive study of retracted publications and their authors. Gac. Sanit. 33: 356–60.
  4. Bar-Ilan J, Halevi G. 2017. Post retraction citations in context: a case study. Scientometrics
    113: 547–65.
  5. Steen RG. 2011. Retractions in the scientific literature: is the incidence of research fraud
    increasing? J. Med. Ethics 37: 249–53.
  6. Fanelli D. 2009. How Many Scientists Fabricate and Falsify Research? A Systematic
    Review and Meta-Analysis of Survey Data. PLoS ONE 4: e5738.
  7. Bik EM, Fang FC, Kullas AL, Davis RJ, et al. 2018. Analysis and Correction of
    Inappropriate Image Duplication: the Molecular and Cellular Biology Experience. Mol. Cell.
    Biol. 38
  8. Bik EM, Casadevall A, Fang FC. 2016. The Prevalence of Inappropriate Image Duplication
    in Biomedical Research Publications. mBio 7
  9. Fanelli D, Costas R, Larivière V. 2015. Misconduct Policies, Academic Culture and Career
    Stage, Not Gender or Pressures to Publish, Affect Scientific Integrity. PLOS ONE 10:
  10. Macrina FL. 2011. Teaching authorship and publication practices in the biomedical and life
    sciences. Sci. Eng. Ethics 17: 341–54.
  11. Resnik DB, Wager E, Kissling GE. 2015. Retraction policies of top scientific journals
    ranked by impact factor. J. Med. Libr. Assoc. JMLA 103: 136–9.

Published by Darshak

PhD candidate enrolled at the University of Groningen and the University of Sao Paulo, pursuing a project on designing safe bio-therapeutics for cancer treatment. Find @DarshakWrites

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