What happens when an open-access journal that encourages registered users to comment on their retractions? It gets what it asked for. Authors and readers have commented on two recent retraction notices published by the journal PLoS ONE, questioning the editor's decision to retract those papers.
This is the first time that authors and readers have commented on retractions using the journal's online commenting feature, said PLoS ONE executive editor Damian Pattinson. "We like that it happened. Our feeling has always been that when we publish a paper that shouldn't be the end of the conversation. We have always allowed readers to comment," he said.
The other retraction was another 2012 study—authored by a different group of Chinese researchers—that described the sequencing and assembly of a microalgae genome that might have importance for biofuel production (2). In that retraction notice, based on similarities with four previously published articles—three of which were published in BMC Genomics and one of which was published in PLoS ONE—the PLoS ONE editors decided to retract the paper because of plagiarism.
At the end of these retraction notices, PLoS ONE included a link for reader comments, and two readers decided to do just that.
On July 14, University of Bristol paleontologist Mike Taylor, who was apparently not involved in the retracted Drosphilia evolution study, commented on the retraction on the PLoS ONE website. In his comment, he called one of the four reasons for the retraction "ridiculous." Two others, he said, required no more than a correction. And of the fourth—"that they do not have access to the raw data on which the results are based"— he said was the only proper ground for retraction, but only after an attempt was made to obtain the data. In the end, Taylor said this seemed more like a “personal conflict” among the authors and their colleagues rather than a “genuine matter of scientific misconduct.”
Two days later, on July 16, two of the authors of the retracted microalgae biofuel paper posted their comments. Countering the journal's finding that "a substantial part of the text in this article was appropriated from text in previous publications," study authors ChenWe Zhang and LingLin Wan, hydrobiologists from China's Jinan University, stated that "we do not plagiarize." While they apologized that one key citation had been inadvertently dropped from the initial manuscript, they argued against PLoS ONE’s decision, indicating they are fully aware of the ethics of plagiarism and did not “steal other people’[s] work.”
"The whole approach to retraction is evolving," said Ferric C. Fang, Infection and Immunity editor-in-chief and professor of microbiology at the University of Washington. "The whole thing is in a state of play. I think that the culture is changing."
Ivan Oransky, co-editor of the blog Retraction Watch, said that journals publishing discussions of their retraction decisions "is a good consequence of allowing comments. You may be looking at a trend to allow more comments."
Adds Fang: "It's considered an alternative model of peer review."
Recently, because of increased findings of scientific misconduct and retractions, journals have reacted by evolving their retraction policies. For example, many journals now publish a retraction without author consent and try to publish more detailed retraction notices.
"What we have done recently is become more detailed in our retractions, and other journals have done the same," explained Pattinson. That is in compliance with the guidelines on retractions issued in 2009 by the Committee on Publication Ethics. And the new openness, in turn, elicits more detailed reactions to the editors' decision and, hopefully, in the end, better science.
- Liu, W., and L. Xue. 2012. Retraction: Functional conservation of the drosophila gooseberry gene and its evolutionary alleles. PLoS ONE 7(6):e30980+.
- Wan, L., J. Han, M. Sang, A. Li, H. Wu, S. Yin, and C. Zhang. 2012. Retraction. De novo transcriptomic analysis of an oleaginous microalga: Pathway description and gene discovery for production of next-generation biofuels. PLoS ONE 7(6):e35142+.
7/27/2012 - Correction: A previous version of this article listed an incorrect affiliation for Dr. Fang. Dr. Fang is from the University of Washington.