Ethical Editor: Research Misconduct. Notifying Journals about Retractions and Corrections

A critical issue in many research-misconduct cases involving publications is when to provide notice to an editor or publisher that an allegation of misconduct has been made regarding a published article. Options include

  1. When some, all, or the most senior authors determine that the article must be corrected or retracted, regardless of whether the problem derives from misconduct or error;
  2. When the institution completes the misconduct investigation; or
  3. When the relevant federal or national agency makes a finding of research misconduct.

U.S. federal regulations require that an institution not reveal the identity of the respondent (the accused researcher) and complainant during a research misconduct investigation except to those who have a need to know (42 C.F.R. §93.108). The Federal Office of Research Integrity (ORI) does not deem a journal editor to be a party with “a need to know” about a research misconduct allegation. Accordingly, these confidentiality regulations often are cited as a reason for not providing early notice to an editor of an allegation of misconduct or a flawed publication.

Waiting for a Federal Finding

In the United States, the vast majority of research-misconduct investigations conclude with a settlement agreement between ORI and the accused scientist. The agreement identifies the nature of the misconduct, the affected publication(s), and a requirement that the accused researcher notify the journal of a required correction or retraction. Shortly after this agreement is reached, ORI issues a notice in the Federal Register that identifies those publications associated with a federal research-misconduct finding and the individual researcher responsible for the correction or retraction. When notice to a journal follows such public notice, journals may cite to the Federal Register notice as basis for a retraction or correction.

Several disadvantages exist when journals depend on a federal misconduct finding to take action. First, ORI’s notices do not identify publications that the institutional investigation determined were flawed but are not associated with a federal research-misconduct finding. ORI does not convert all institutional findings of misconduct to a federal finding for a variety of reasons, some of which are solely based on ORI’s resource limits. Second, a substantial delay typically exists between the time an allegation of misconduct is made and a federal finding is made. Significant delays exist even between the time an institution submits its investigation report to ORI and ORI makes a concomitant federal finding. During ORI’s review, other researchers may build, or attempt to build, on the flawed publications, and patents may be blocked or compromised by the publications. Perhaps for these reasons, approximately two-thirds of the publications associated with a research-misconduct finding are already retracted or corrected by the time ORI makes its research-misconduct finding.

Authors Providing Notice

Nothing in the misconduct regulations precludes authors from providing a journal notice that a paper requires correction or retraction—the authors simply cannot disclose the identities of the accused researcher or the complainant. Many authors, however, want any retraction or correction to clearly identify the author whose conduct led to the correction or retraction, and typically, the accused author resists such notice. If all the authors at least agree that a correction is warranted, they may still be concerned about the identification of additional problems during the investigation that will preclude correction and require retraction of the article. The inability of authors to agree on a correction or retraction notice to journals typically frustrates prompt publisher notification of a problematic publication.

Institutions Providing Notice

At the conclusion of an institutional research misconduct investigation, many institutions require an accused researcher to notify journals of publications that must be corrected or retracted, regardless of whether the institution makes a finding of research misconduct. Most journals that follow the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) guidelines will retract an article after an institutional research- misconduct finding regardless of whether a secondary federal research misconduct finding is made. Such an approach recognizes the primacy of institutional responsibility for investigating such cases, recognizes the lack of a national regulatory body in many countries to make a secondary finding, and avoids the delays in correcting the literature that appear endemic to a federal misconduct finding. However, institutions have different definitions of research misconduct, and many respondents raise questions regarding the competence of institutions to conduct investigations.

Most articles that are the subject of research misconduct, investigations are retracted or corrected before a federal research misconduct is made. It appears that notice to a journal typically follows an institutional research-misconduct investigation. Journals, institutions, and authors should consider their larger obligations to the scientific community to promptly correct the literature.