Should unethical research be retracted?

By William Bülow

It is no news that researchers sometimes make mistakes, or that some of us even commit fraudulent acts, such as data fabrication or falsification. Despite precautionary measures, such as careful editorial practices and peer-review, fraudulent or flawed research papers sometimes get published. When this happens, these papers should be retracted. This is crucial in order to ensure integrity in research and to retain trust, both among researchers and from the general public.

Recent work in research ethics has come to devote important attention to how to improve the system of paper retraction. The retraction of a paper is often very stigmatizing, which in turn might discourage self-reported or author-initiated retractions due to honest mistakes. This is of course very unfortunate. There is an ongoing discussion of how to reform the retraction system in order to create a change of attitudes towards retractions which, as a result, could encourage author-initiated retractions of this sort. Among suggested measures are increased transparency and openness about the reason for retraction, as well as who initiated it. This type of information is often lacking in retraction notices.

We very much welcome this engagement with the retraction system and suggestions for how it might be improved. However, in our forthcoming paper “Why unethical research should be retracted” my co-authors and I focus on an issue that, at least to our knowledge, has received much less attention in this context. This is the issue of whether papers that report unethical research – for example, research performed without appropriate concern for the moral rights and interests of the research participants – should also be retracted. If yes, why is that so?

As we began to think about this normative issue we became interested in exploring to what extent this issue is acknowledged in the retraction policies of academic publishers. We therefore performed a literature survey. As we point out in our paper, many journals do not have explicit policies for how to handle unethical research. As a group of ethicists with an interest in publication ethics we then began to think about what would be an appropriate policy for this matter.

In our paper we identify and discuss four normative arguments for why unethical research should be retracted. The first argument is that it is wrong in itself to publish unethical research and that any such publications should therefore be retracted. As our analysis shows, however, this is a rather weak argument. The second argument is that it is important to retract such papers in order to communicate that unethical research is unacceptable and under no circumstances should be encouraged. The third argument that we have identified is that retractions are appropriate for unethical research because it calls the trustworthiness of the whole paper into question. We argue that even if this type of argument provides a reason to start an inquiry about the paper’s scientific validity, it does not in itself provide a reason to retract the paper. The forth argument, which we refer to as the argument from complicity, suggests that failure to retract papers that report deeply unethical research might constitute a form of complicity, since the publisher makes it possible for the researchers to complete their unethical research by bringing it all the way to publication of results. Having discussed all of these arguments, our conclusion is that there is a strong case for retracting papers resulting from unethical research. However, we grant that there might be exceptions – for instance if the data from unethical research could promote an important good. In these cases other researchers should get access to the data, methods and records needed for replication, follow-ups or confirmatory research with a different design, although the paper gets retracted. Here some kind of digital repository controlled by the journal might be a solution.

As we acknowledge in the paper, there is an issue of what should count as unethical research, and whether all instances of unethical research call for retraction. In the light of our discussion of this matter, our normative analysis and our empirical survey, we end our paper with the following recommendation for a policy that scientific and scholarly journals can adapt:

  • Both papers that are the result of misconduct and seriously unethical research should be retracted and only their abstracts left online, always clearly marked as ‘retracted’.
  • Retraction notices should be informative and easily accessible. Not only should they spell out that the reason for retraction is that the research is unethical (when that is the case) but also in what way and to what extent it is unethical.
  • Corrections should only be used for honest errors.
  • An editorial note, tied to the paper, is recommendable when a paper is unethical in some respect, but where this is considered insufficient ground for retraction.

 

Paper title: Why unethical research should be retracted

Author(s): William Bülow1, Tove Godskesen2,3, Gert Helgesson4, Stefan Eriksson3

  1. Department of Philosophy, Stockholm University
  2. The Department of Health Care Sciences, Ersta Sköndal Bräcke University College
  3. Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics, Uppsala University, Sweden
  4. Stockholm Centre for Healthcare Ethics, Dept. of Learning, Informatics, Management and Ethics, Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden

Competing interests: None

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