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Forgive and forget: authors not penalised for self-retraction

Publication retraction for honest mistakes

What should you do if you discover a mistake in one of your publications? The Committee on Publication Ethics recommends retraction of papers where there is: ‘clear evidence that the findings are unreliable, either as a result of misconduct (e.g. data fabrication) or honest error (e.g. miscalculation or experimental error)’. Many authors are nevertheless reluctant to retract papers containing innocent mistakes for fear that others will associate the retraction with fraud. A blog post on Retraction Watch suggests, however, that this fear may be misplaced.

Daniele Fanelli, of METRICS (the Meta-Research Innovation Center at Stanford University), interviewed 14 authors who had retracted papers for honest mistakes between 2010 and 2015. Most of the authors admitted that they had initially wanted to correct their papers and that the decision to retract had been made by the journal. Importantly, the authors also reported that the retraction had no negative consequences. This supports previous findings that self-retraction has no impact on an author’s citation rate. Fanelli suggests that the tendency of the media to focus on cases of retraction linked to fraud means that many researchers underestimate the willingness of the scientific community to forgive genuine mistakes. He argues that there should be greater recognition of self-retraction, and more publicity around cases where scientists benefit from ‘doing the right thing’.

The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors updated its guidelines in December 2016 to allow ‘retraction with republication’ in cases of genuine error. Several journals, including JAMA, have incorporated this into their own editorial policies, in an effort to encourage greater openness around honest mistakes.


Summary by Louisa Lyon, DPhil from Aspire Scientific



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