Retracted research~I

The study published in Nature, a leading international journal, has taken the academic world by storm.

Retracted research~I

Representation image

The study published in Nature, a leading international journal, has taken the academic world by storm. Richard Van Noorden’s analysis based on the database of Retraction Watch, one media organisation, and other journals reveals record retraction of scientific papers from research journals ~ more than 10,000 papers in 2023, a 2.5 fold spike from the preceding year.

Ironically or fortunately, 8,000 of those papers had exclusively been from journals owned by Hindawi, a subsidiary of Wiley. The analysis also evinces that the retraction rate has trebled in the last decade. In India, the incidence and number of retractions have increased manifold since 2010 ~ from 595 papers between 2017- 19 to 1550 during 2020-22, or a 2.5 fold jump. India holds the 3rd rank in the world. Specifically from older IITs, many scientific papers had been retracted, for reasons like plagiarism of text and article and duplication of papers.

Two IIT (School of Mines) scientists have had 50 papers retracted. India has the dubious distinction of publishing the highest number of predatory journals ~ Madhya Pradesh tops the states ~ and resultant research papers. Predatory journals, otherwise a cottage industry, are a different genre without an editorial board and peer review system and publish almost anything for a hefty publication fee.


Moreover, shadow agencies, commonly known as paper mills or manuscript mills, are doing thriving business in India. Retraction is the outcome of the process where editors or external experts raise critical questions about the underlying idea, dataset, experiment and findings of research papers, for which the published papers cannot be relied upon. Being the last resort, retraction is invoked when the integrity and veracity of the paper come under the hammer.

Retraction Watch enlists 109 reasons for retraction, like errors in data collection or classification, fabrication or manipulation of data, oversight of research protocol, plagiarism, simultaneous publication, fake peer review and ethical or other misconduct. Though the boundary between acceptable human error and intentional misconduct is rather tenuous, it is unequivocal that deliberate fudging is responsible for more than threefourths of retractions.

The whopping numbers and alarming increase in retraction rates are pushing scientific academia to an epochal juncture. The phenomenon points to the overwhelming sweep and hold of sham science all around, belittles public trust in scientific research and shrouds and misleads the trajectory of knowledge and even public policy.

The fake research papers are stretching the credibility of research to a screeching, if not crushing point. Bogus publications are vindicating an international publishing scandal. The ominous and appalling eventuality points to overpowering problems for the future trajectory of science per se. What is exposed now is, ironically, the tip of the malpractice iceberg. The retraction figures habitually exclude conference papers, books, and above all, social science papers; otherwise, the aggregate would have swelled.

Flagging is relatively easy for scientific papers, as these are based on a specific or verifiable dataset, experiment or laboratory test. However, the detection process seems messy for social science papers, where replication is almost impossible. Papers dealing with survey data and critical or theoretical discourse can, at the most, be subject to plagiarism and multiple submission tests. The phenomenon of deception and misconduct is obviously much more extensive and multifaceted.

With the publication of fraudulent papers, the damage is already done and not much could be done to undo their fallouts, particularly in action-oriented research, except naming and sharing the authors and publishers. The influence or impact of fake research lingers on due to a long time lag ~ 9.5 months being the median of retraction. By the time the retraction decision is taken, the studies might have been extensively cited, used as the premise of many other genuine research studies or guided technology and public policy.

The large observational study in Lancet concluded that hydroxychloroquine was responsible for more deaths and heart related complications among Covid-19 patients. Accordingly, the WHO stopped clinical trials of the drug. However, subsequent investigation uncovered inconsistencies in the database of “Surgisphere,” the base of the study, and the paper was retracted. Similarly, laboratory studies indicated that the anti-parasite Ivermectin is the magic drug for treating Covid-19 patients.

Later on, these studies were found to have committed clear evidence of fraud. Retraction does not necessarily imply that the study will disappear altogether from circulation and use. Studies found that 90 per cent of the retracted articles continued to receive citations after retraction. For the print version of the studies, a retraction notice in a subsequent issue of the journal remains the only viable option. Yet, not everyone can keep up with such notification.

The digital version of the papers may conveniently be preceded by a retraction notification. But that step is not always evinced: onehalf of the retracted research papers on Covid-19 are still available in full-text without retraction notices. From an alternative perspective, the insistence is that the increasing rate of retraction is heartening as it demonstrates the concerted efforts and improving skills of the journal editors and watchdog agencies. Surely, more and more detections are due to the initiatives and surveillance by many stakeholders.

And variegated methodologies are being employed ~ analysis of the manuscript content, identification of softwaregenerated “tortured phases” designed to skirt plagiarism probes, screening of citation patterns and scrutiny of problematic papers. The newer method factors in the combination of authors that is likely to flag bought-in authorship. Nonetheless, it is equally explicit that more and more academics are resorting to spurious means. Estimates attest that the retraction rates are outstripping the number of research papers or that the rates are inversely proportionate to the increase in publications.

The journal publishers tend to be in a quandary as to how to detect pseudo research papers or how to reinforce their filtering mechanisms. For decades, the peer review process has served as the gold standard for determining the validity or authenticity of submitted manuscripts. The review is intended to examine and assess the quality and accuracy of the method employed, the analysis and the findings of the study by the subject experts. The review process ~ either concealing or disclosing the identity of the authors and reviewers ~ filters out the poor quality papers or ensures improvement with suggested modifications.

The appraisal report of the reviewers is the basis on which journal editors make final decisions. However, exponential retractions substantiate the deficiencies ingrained in the review system. It is more often hobbled by inconsistencies, loopholes, systemic manipulation and vulnerability. The review process is not yet organized, or infallible. As JT Torres puts it, the reviewers are professionals, but peer review is not a profession as yet.

The review process is susceptible to compromise or scheming. Occasionally it may be a namesake; otherwise, Computational and Mathematical Methods in Medicine would not have published the article “Contemporary Value Assessment of Marxist Ideology under the Context of Deep Learning.” The special issues of journals, owned by the Hindawi Group, were manipulated by way of selective guest editors and reviewers which eventually led to the retraction of 8,000 research papers in 2023.

(The writer is former Associate Professor of Political Science, Tufanganj College, Cooch Behar, West Bengal)