January 1999

Retractions 1970-97

Massimo Battaglia and Salvatore Lazzara

Institute of Experimental Medicine, Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche, 00133 Rome, Italy

In order to cope with the emerging problem of scientific misconduct and fraudulent publication, an International Committee on Publication Ethics has been set up by the editors of nine prestigious medical journals, and the need for a British body for research misconduct has been advocated1.

This prompted us to analyze the scientific literature records in the Medline database for retractions Figure (retractions 1970-97) in the period 1970-97. A total of 266 papers (mean 9.50/year) were retracted in 229 retraction notices (mean 8.17/year). No retractions, as shown in the accompanying figure, were published until 1977, when 3 appeared, and in 20 years this figure increased up to 27. This increase was, at least in part, paralleled by a corresponding rise in the total number of publications. All the retractions and as many as 261 (98.12%) of the retracted papers were published in English. More than three fourths of the papers were retracted within 3 years, and about two thirds within 2 years after publication.

These data raise several questions, and, among them: i) does this represent a true increase in errors and fraud in the last 20 years? ii) is it just the tip of the iceberg? iii) to what extent is pressure to publish responsible for experimental error and manipulation of data? iv) how should the journal editors and readers deal with error, fraud, retracted papers, partial retractions2 and even retracted corrections3?

Our findings extend and complement the data recently reported by Budd et al4, who searched cumulatively the Medline database from 1966 through August 1997 for papers that had been retracted, examined the reasons for retraction, and found that retracted articles continued to be cited as reliable work after the publication of retraction notice.

  1. Smith R. The need for a national body for research misconduct. BMJ 1998;316: 1686-1687.
  2. Ichikawa T, Suzuki Y, Czaja I, Schommer C, Leßnick A, Schell J, Walden R. Identification and role of adenylyl cyclase in auxin signalling in higher plants. Nature 1998; 396: 390.
  3. Mandelboim O, Berke G, Fridkin M, Feldman M, Eisenstein M, Eisenbach L. CTL induction by a tumour-associated antigen octapeptide derived from a murine lung carcinoma. Nature 1998; 392: 311.
  4. Budd JM, Sievert ME, Schultz TR. Phenomena of retraction. Reasons for retraction and citations to the publications. JAMA1998; 280: 296-297.