Scholarly journals form a vital link in the research process and serve multiple functions for the scientific community. A journal is “a periodical that an identifiable intellectual community regards as a primary channel for communication of knowledge in its field and is one of the arbiters of the authenticity or legitimacy of that knowledge.”1 Peer review serves as a credible filter for journal publishing, but errors occur and corrections are sometimes necessary. This essay addresses key aspects of correcting the literature to preserve journal integrity and reader trust.
There are a number of reasons for correcting the literature. Corrections are published to address unreliable information, to aid fellow researchers, to preserve public trust, and protect and promote a journal’s integrity. Correcting the literature is as fundamental to publishing as peer review is to vetting credible work. The processes represent different parts of the publishing cycle, but both make it possible for readers to depend on reliable information. It is important to note that although there may be specific reasons to correct, no single method works for all types of literature corrections.
A number of common misperceptions about literature corrections should be considered before publication. In theory, correcting the literature is a straightforward exercise. However, it is not an exact science. Although most would agree that a simple “typo” is easy to amend, corrections are not so transparent if they are warranted because of a finding of scientific misconduct. The wording used in corrections can be as varied as the author doing the work. Researchers have invested years in their training and career building and are sometimes hesitant to admit wrongdoing through a published literature correction. It is helpful to keep in mind that some literature corrections may be associated with complicating factors, such as authorship disputes, contribution questions, and current investigations of research misconduct. As a result, there are occasions when an author will be resistant to “owning” a mistake identified in a paper and refuse to participate in correcting it. Despite such resistance, a journal is responsible for providing reliable information, including literature corrections.
When to Correct
An issue often overlooked with regard to literature correction is the timing: when corrections are complete and ready for dissemination. Models and guidance documents are available to help to determine when to publish a correction, but the process is not uniform among journals. Literature corrections are not addressed instantly with a stroke of a pen. Some journals state that all authors are required to sign off on all forms of literature corrections, and others will accept the signature of the lead author or other authorized institutional official.2
If research misconduct lies at the heart of a correction, it is important to consider the privacy policies that are in place during an investigation. For example, the Office of Research Integrity, which is responsible for addressing misconduct in research funded by the US Public Health Service, is guided by a specific federal regulation to uphold the privacy of parties involved in research-misconduct cases until an investigation is complete.3 Confidentiality of parties involved in a research misconduct case is to be protected during an investigation unless the health or safety of the public is at risk. It is incumbent on the editor or the publishing support staff to be aware of privacy policies before they disseminate corrections related to scientific misconduct. In general, the most prudent approach is to publish a correction as soon as reasonably possible.
Resources to Consult
A number of credible resources are available to help to identify the various types of literature corrections and models for correcting them. The National Library of Medicine, the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors, the Council of Science Editors, and the Committee on Publication Ethics provide thorough definitions and a wide array of examples.4–6
The Journal’s Best Tool
In addition to the correction models available from professional bodies, all journals have their own instructions for authors that may serve as directives to address literature infractions before they occur. Journals that address, even generally, how they will handle literature corrections will accomplish two primary goals of publishing: serving their readers and protecting their integrity.
- LaFollette MC. Stealing into print: fraud, plagiarism, and misconduct in scientific publishing. Berkley CA: University of California Press; 1992 p. 69.
- MEDLINE Fact sheet. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/pubs/factsheets/errata.html.
- PHS Fed. Reg. Notice 42 CFR, Parts 50 § 93.108 Confidentiality. Public health service policies on research misconduct; Final rule.
- International Committee of Medical Journal Editors. http://www.icmje.org/publishing_2corrections.html
- Council of Science Editors. http://www.councilscienceeditors.org/files/public/entire_whitepaper.pdf
- Committee on Publication Ethics. http://www.publicationethics.org
MARY D SCHEETZ is a research consultant and owns her own firm, Research Integrity, LLC, in Charlottesville, Virginia.