Is it Retracted? Check Before You Cite.

Delete key on computer keyboard

It’s rare, but it happens. A very small fraction (about 4 in 10,000) of peer-reviewed manuscripts are retracted – papers that are withdrawn from their original publication. Some are retracted because of honest errors – an error in a modeling equation, a mistake in patient data entry – and some are not, for instance intentional manipulation of data.

When a manuscript is retracted, the publisher removes the paper from the website (presumably there are still print copies in existence, if the journal offers a print format). Until recently, there was no systematic way to find retracted papers or comb the data on retractions.

Now, there is: the Retraction Watch Database, which contains information on over 18,000 retracted manuscripts, including the reasons for retraction.

The folks at Retraction Watch teamed up with colleagues at Science to analyze the retraction data and they found some interesting trends:

  • Relatively few authors (about 500) are responsible for a disproportionate number of retractions.
  • The majority of retractions have involved scientific fraud or other kinds of misconduct.
  • The rate of retraction due to plagiarism looks to be stabilizing and possibly declining over the last 7 years.
  • Retraction due to fake peer-review has increased steadily, and is the reason for about 20% of all retractions (as of 2015 data).

Before you submit your next manuscript for peer-review, double check the Retraction Watch database to ensure you’re not unknowingly citing a retracted paper.

How academia can increase the value of research articles

With all the money invested in obtaining research funding, universities should invest more in the end product of that research, namely the publications. That is the argument made by the authors of a recent paper on improving the medical research literature.

The authors identified 3 targets that could help universities improve the publications from their researchers: introducing publications officers into the academic environment, training researchers how to be authors, and training researchers how to be peer reviewers.
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Is that open access publishing fee worth it?

Shelves in a library showing journals where researchers publish a scientific paper.

Open access publishing offers readers free access to articles published online, in contrast to a model where articles are available through an individual or institutional subscription to the journal. Most often, authors (or their institutions) pay an open access publishing fee when the manuscript is accepted. The fees can range from $75 to over $3,000 per article, depending on the journal.
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Tips to prepare a scientific manuscript that gets published

Recently, I gave a webinar on publishing a scientific manuscript for the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA). [An archived version of the webinar is located AMWA On Demand Webinars.] In the webinar, I reviewed topics including selecting a compatible journal, online resources for literature searches, and writing strategy.

Following the webinar, there was a Q&A session in which I was asked some great questions by the audience. Here is a condensed version of the questions and my answers from the webinar on publishing a scientific manuscript:
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Peer review: who, why, and how

Cartoon depicting peer review as a series of physical beatings.

Whether you are a veteran researcher or just beginning your academic career, you are probably familiar with the concept of peer review. In an ideal world, peer reviewers would politely request changes and suggest changes that would significantly improve your publications. In reality, peer review can be rude and unproductive. Here are some suggestions to improve both sides of the peer review conversation.
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Is your journal publisher up to par?


Recent developments in scientific publishing have many folks scrutinizing open-access journals a bit more closely.  A journalist with Science concocted a fake manuscript that, in his words, was a “credible but mundane scientific paper, one with such grave errors that a competent peer reviewer should easily identify it as flawed and unpublishable.”

[Update 11/12/13 (wow, what a great date!):  Here’s a post-sting interview with the journalist, John Bohannon.]

In total, he submitted minor variations on the same manuscript to 304 open-access journals, of which 154 accepted the paper for publication.  (None of the manuscripts was published.  After acceptance, Bohannon would admit to uncovering a “serious flaw that invalidates the conclusions” and withdraw the paper.)  Of the 154 journals that accepted the flawed manuscript, it appeared that 82 performed no peer-review before accepting.

While these results may seem disheartening for open-access publishing, it’s worth noting that no comparable investigation was performed on “traditional” journals that operate by subscription (see rebuttals on the Scholarly Kitchen, and the Guardian websites).  So, there’s no way to say that open-access journals are different or worse than traditional journals in terms of their peer-review process. (Would be interesting to see the results of that study.)

Professional organizations exist, such as Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), that provide guidelines for peer-reviewers and publishers to follow.  COPE admits to having some of the journals uncovered by the sting on its list of vetted publications and vows to reexamine its approval process.  A list of possible predatory publishers and journals is maintained by a librarian at the University of Colorado – Denver.  From the results of this open-access sting, it appears that this “predatory” list is fairly good at spotting questionable practices, though some journals listed as predatory correctly rejected the flawed paper.

Next time you’re sending off a manuscript for review, pay close attention to the journal you or your colleague has selected.  It may be worth gathering a little  more background information about the practices and people behind the journal.  Do you recognize folks on the editorial board? Have your colleagues published in this journal before?  For the long-term health of your career and reputation, its better to get 1 or 2 high-quality publications on your CV instead of 3 times that amount at journals that may operate with questionable practices and intentions.