Retractions, expressions of concern, and corrections often arise from reader critiques sent by readers, whether those readers are others in the field, sleuths, or other interested parties. In many of those cases, journals seek the input of authors’ employers, often universities. In a recent paper in Research Integrity and Peer Review, longtime scientific publishing consultant Elizabeth Wager and Lancet executive editor Sabine Kleinert, writing on behalf of the Cooperation & Liaison between Universities & Editors (CLUE) group, offer recommendations on best practice for these interactions. Here, they respond to several questions about the paper.
A great Retraction Watch interview about how institutions and journals can lift their games with regard to alleged breaches and misconduct. How quick and transparent are your institution’s arrangements? It’s high time national codes recognise institutions and journals have a conflict of interest when it comes to investigation and disclosure.
Sabine Kleinert and Elizabeth Wager (SK + EW): As with so many ethical problems, this involves judgement and balance between possible harms. Timing also depends on the nature of the evidence presented to the journal. At one extreme, if a journal receives well-documented findings of a properly organised institutional investigation which found serious problems (eg data fabrication) in a published article, it should usually issue a retraction immediately. However, if there are concerns about the quality of the investigation, or the findings are unclear or contested by the authors, then the journal may need to resolve these problems before communicating with readers. At the other extreme, Expressions of Concern (or retractions) should not be published at the first hint of suspicion (eg on receipt of an email making vague allegations). In nearly all cases, journals should communicate with the authors affected, and sometimes also with the institution, and this can cause delays. So, boring as the answer is “It depends …”.