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January 18, 2011
Retractions: Why The Secrecy?
Ben Goldacre has an excellent point here at Bad Science: when a paper gets retracted from a journal, shouldn't everyone know why it's been retracted?
He highlights the experience of the blog Retraction Watch (which I hadn't heard of until now), when they tried to find out why a paper had been pulled from the Annals of Thoracic Surgery. The journal's editor responded to their query by informing them that "it's none of your damn business".
Gotta disagree there, chief. I think that this is actually important information, and that it should be disclosed as much as possible. There are all sorts of reasons for papers to be retracted, ranging from benign to evil, and it's in the interest of readers to know what category things have fallen into. I understand that in some cases papers are the subject of ongoing investigations, so these details aren't always available, but in that case, why not say something like: "The data in Table II have not been reliably reproduced by other workers. While some of the co-authors of the original work have stated that they stand by the results as published, an investigation has begun into the methods and data of this paper, and the lead authors have asked that it be retracted until this matter is concluded".
But that's not the sort of thing we get. Goldacre cites another example from Retraction Watch, concerning this paper from JACS. When the bloggers contacted the lead author, he gave them more details than you could get from the journal about what was wrong with the paper. So why doesn't JACS tell us these things?
Thanks to the Retraction Watch people for taking the time and effort to do this sort of thing. I just wish that it weren't necessary for anyone to do it at all.
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