In this part, we define retraction stigma as a discrediting evaluation of the professional competence and academic ethics of (individual and institutional) entities which are held accountable for retraction. To substantiate this definition, we further conceptualize retraction stigma by identifying its seven core dimensions, considering its functional justifications at both social and psychological levels, and distinguishing its various targets and stakeholders.
Retraction: Discrediting Violation of Research and Publication Ethics
Stigma is defined by Goffman (1963/1990) as “an attribute that is deeply discrediting” (13) and “the situation of the individual who is disqualified from full social acceptance” (9). It occurs when an individual’s “actual social identity” (i.e., the attributes manifested by actual behaviors) does not match his/her “virtual social identity” (i.e., the attributes supposed to be demonstrated through behaviors) (12). Similarly, Stafford and Scott (1986) define stigma as a human characteristic (i.e., behavior, belief, and status) that violates a given social norm, leading to social disqualification and discreditation.
Retraction results from a severe violation of research and/or publication norms upheld by the academic community. Research fraud is identified by Ben-Yehuda and Oliver-Lumerman (2017) as deviance in science, that is, violation of scientific norms. As proposed by Resnik (1998/2005), scientists are expected to maintain 12 standards of ethical conduct, namely, honesty, carefulness, openness, freedom, credit, education, social responsibility, legality, opportunity, mutual respect, efficiency, and respect for subjects. Closely related to these standards of ethical conduct in science, 9 standards for scholarly publishing were proposed by Wager and Kleinert (2011): soundness and reliability, honesty, balance, originality, transparency, appropriate authorship and acknowledgment, accountability and responsibility, adherence to peer review and publication conventions, and accountable reporting of research involving humans or animals.Footnote 1 Similar standards are also upheld in governmental policies that define research misconduct and scientific integrity (e.g., Office of Science and Technology Policy 2000). Notably, these standards of ethical research and publishing have been incorporated into COPE’s retraction guidelines (COPE Council 2019) and procedure for handling issues regarding publication ethics (COPE Council 2020).
The reasons for retraction identified by numerous retraction studies and listed by the RWDB violate seven of Resnik’s standards of ethical conduct in science (i.e., honesty, carefulness, credit, social responsibility, legality, mutual respect, and respect for subjects) and virtually all of Wager and Kleinert’s standards of scholarly publishing (with the exception of balance). Among the identified reasons for retraction, misconduct (e.g., data fabrication, data falsification, and plagiarism) accounts for most retractions (Brainard et al. 2018; Xu and Hu in press-a). Thus, most retractions have resulted from violations of the norm of honesty. Being dishonest means being a liar, which is one of the “blemishes of individual character” in Goffman’s (1963/1990: 14) classification of stigma. Notably, Crandall et al.'s (2002) large-scale survey study (N = 1504) on the effects of social norms on the public expression of prejudice (i.e., perceived stigma) against 105 social groups revealed that liars ranked 17th, way above obese people (70th) and people with AIDS (71st). Given that obesity and HIV/AIDS have been examined as two types of stigma in numerous studies (Turner et al. 2020), there is good reason to posit the existence of retraction stigma anchored in dishonesty, among violations of other research and publication norms. The postulation of retraction stigma is also based on many scientists’ advocacy of incriminating research fraud (e.g., Hadjiargyrou 2015; Redman and Caplan 2005) and the general public’s perception that “both data fraud and selective reporting are morally wrong” (Pickett and Roche 2018: 162).
Seven Core Dimensions of Retraction Stigma
Previous theorizing on stigma has conceptualized the construct in terms of seven core dimensions, namely, concealability, course, disruptiveness, aesthetics, origin, peril, and collectivity. All these seven dimensions, represented in Figure 1, are applicable to retraction stigma, as defined and delineated below.
Concealability refers to the extent to which the stigmatized mark is visible and its visibility can be controlled (Jones et al. 1984). The mark of retraction stigma is the retraction status of publications. Unlike “abominations of the body” (e.g., physical abnormalities) and “the tribal stigma” (e.g., membership in racial, ethnic, and religious out-groups) (Goffman 1963/1990: 14), the mark of retraction stigma is not visibly carried by its bearers (i.e., those who committed retraction-engendering acts). Although retracted publications indicate their culpable authors’ “blemishes of individual character” (Goffman 1963/1990: 14), the public connection of these retracted publications to their accountable authors can be manipulated and, consequently, the mark of retraction stigma can be concealed to varying extents.
On a macro level, retraction as a mechanism renders scientific misconduct visible in and beyond the academic community (Hesselmann et al. 2017). In most cases, retractions are publicized through official announcements (i.e., retraction notices) published in academic journals. As a result, the concealability of retraction has been decreasing as the academic community is paying more and more attention to the phenomenon of retraction. Retracted publications and retraction notices have increasingly been indexed and archived in various databases (e.g., Web of Science, PubMed, and RWDB). The RWDB archived 23,896 retracted publications by December 31, 2020. Retraction-related information made publicly and freely accessible in the RWDB includes titles of retracted publications, names of their authors, their geographic locations and affiliations, journal titles, publisher names, publication dates of retracted publications and retraction notices, and reasons for retraction. Of the retracted publications documented by the RWDB, only 5.8% (n = 1,389) restricted public access through their paywalled retraction notices. More and more behind-the-scenes information on retraction has been disclosed on watchdog platforms (e.g., Retraction Watch and PubPeer), and high-profile retractions have been covered in mass media. Many of the retracted publications are watermarked “RETRACTED” usually in red to indicate their status of retraction. Notably, the reference management software EndNote recently has introduced the function of automatically notifying its users of retracted publications in their EndNote libraries (EndNote 2021). These developments have made it more difficult to conceal the mark of retraction stigma.
On a micro level, however, there is still much room for manipulating the mark of retraction and its visibility. For instance, in contrast to the active promotion of their publications, researchers have rarely revealed their records of retraction in their resumes (Teixeira da Silva et al. 2020), social media, or on academic networking platforms. According to the RWDB, by December 31, 2020, approximately 39% (n = 9,250) of its archived retracted publications were retracted without retraction notices or with retraction notices disclosing no or limited information on the reasons for retraction. Similarly, many studies (e.g., Grieneisen and Zhang 2012; Xu and Hu in press-a) have reported that reasons for retraction are missing from a considerably large number of retraction notices. Furthermore, as frequently reported in the literature (Azoulay et al. 2017; Craiga et al. 2020; Hesselmann et al. 2017; Vuong 2019), retraction notices are characterised by brevity, uninformativeness, vagueness, use of euphemisms, and ambiguous wording. More tellingly, agents of retraction-engendering acts could not be identified in 56% of the 250 retraction notices examined by Hu and Xu (2020), and even entities accountable for retraction could not be determined in some cases (Grieneisen and Zhang 2012; Xu and Hu in press-b).
Course refers to the stigmatized mark’s “pattern of change over time” and its “ultimate outcome” (Jones et al. 1984: 24). As recommended by the COPE’s procedure for retraction (COPE Council 2020) and noted by Xu and Hu (2021), suspected problems with publications may be reported to journal authorities and/or their authors, and the publications should subsequently be retracted once the suspicions are confirmed. Publications corrected for minor errors through errata and corrigenda may end up being retracted when retraction-engendering problems are detected and confirmed later. The RWDB had documented 237 such cases by December 31, 2020. An expression of concern may be issued before an alleged retraction-engendering behavior is confirmed. Once the allegation is verified, the issued expression of concern may be superseded with a retraction notice. According to the RWDB, expressions of concern were issued to 854 publications by December 31, 2020. Publications with alleged problems may first be withdrawn from publishing platforms and then restored when non-substantial changes are made. In general, retractable publications take a long time to be detected and retracted (Dal-Ré and Ayuso 2019).
Once a publication is retracted, its status of retraction is rarely revoked unless post-retraction evidence proves that the retracted publication is actually valid. However, retraction may not be the death penalty for a problematic publication. For instance, some retracted publications may be republished after their retraction-engendering problems are addressed (Heckers et al. 2015). The RWDB documented 308 cases of “retraction and replacement”. It is not uncommon that one case of retraction triggers a follow-up investigation into other publications by the authors of retracted publications, which results in additional retractions. Actually, repeat offenders (i.e., those with a record of more than one retraction) are found accountable for a majority of retractions (Grieneisen and Zhang 2012). It should also be noted that the course of retraction can be influenced by authors of retracted publications themselves. As reported by Xu and Hu (2021), some authors may proactively request a retraction, when they detect problems with their publications, or act cooperatively in an investigation into their publications. By contrast, other authors may be uncooperative or unreachable in retraction-related investigations and even disagree to the retraction decision made by journal authorities.
Disruptiveness concerns the question of whether the stigmatized mark “block[s] or hamper[s] interaction and communication” (Jones et al. 1984: 24). Academic publications are intended for knowledge dissemination and academic communication. Since they are scientifically invalid and/or ethically flawed, retracted publications should not be cited, and subsequent studies should not be based on retracted research data/findings. In other words, retracted publications, together with publications citing them positively (Rapani et al. 2020), may disrupt the normal course of research (Craiga et al. 2020). Moreover, retractions may have undesirable spill-over effects; that is, they can negatively affect citations to valid publications by authors of retracted publications (Azoulay et al. 2017). Retracted publications also distort academic metrics (Teixeira da Silva and Dobránszki 2018) and undermine the reliability of metrics-based evaluation of research outputs. A publishing ban ranging from a few years to a lifetime may also be imposed on authors of retracted publications (Springer n.d.), which disturbs academic communication. Although publishing bans as sanctions on retraction go against the COPE retraction guidelines’ explicit disapproval of punishment for misbehaving researchers (COPE Council 2019), the RWDB had records of 71 publishing bans issued by December 31, 2020. It is not clear to what extent retraction has led to covert publishing bans. Last but not least, retracted publications disrupt academic communication by depriving competing manuscripts of valuable and limited publishing opportunities.
Aesthetics refers to the extent to which “the mark makes the possessor repellent, ugly, or upsetting” (Jones et al. 1984: 24). Although Jones et al. (1984) view the aesthetic dimension as being more applicable to human body-related stigma (e.g., deformity and disfigurement) than to human character-related stigma (e.g., lying and theft), it can be argued that the mark of retraction damages guilty authors’ face (i.e., academic image) and makes them repellent reputationally. Physically, retracted publications are often watermarked “RETRACTED”, usually in red, across all pages of a retracted publication, explicitly and forcefully staining its author’s image. Furthermore, photos of authors of retracted publications are often displayed in Retraction Watch blog posts (e.g., Marcus 2020) to connect them with grave cases of academic misconduct.
Origin answers three questions about stigma: “Under what circumstances did the condition originate? Was anyone responsible for it and what was he or she trying to do?” (Jones et al. 1984: 24). In most cases, authors of retracted publications are agents of retraction-engendering acts (Grieneisen and Zhang 2012), most of which are committed for short-term personal interests, such as increased research output, coping with the publish-or-perish pressure, and attainment of tenure, promotion, and monetary rewards. Retraction-engendering acts are committed either intentionally as misconduct, which is accountable for most retractions, or unknowingly as honest error, which accounts for a much smaller number of retractions (Xu and Hu in press-a). As shown by Xu and Hu (in press-b), entities other than authors of retracted publications (e.g., journal authorities and third parties) are also accountable for a considerable number of retractions, and in some cases either no entities were found at fault or the accountable entities could not be identified.
Peril refers to the danger posed by the stigmatized mark as well as its imminence and seriousness (Jones et al. 1984). Retracted publications endanger not only subsequent publications but also the cause of science and public interests. Later publications that are unknowingly based on the findings of retracted publications are in peril of being retracted. Retracted research findings may derail science (Craiga et al. 2020) by eroding public trust in scientific research (Byrne 2019) and demotivating junior researchers from pursuing a career in science (Reich 2009) to the detriment of the sustainable development of science. Furthermore, retracted research may mislead the general public to accept or refuse certain medical treatment and adopt questionable lifestyles (Godlee 2011; Steen 2011). Given such consequences, retractions pose a danger to the functioning and wellbeing of not only the academic community but also society at large.
Collectivity refers to “the extent to which a stigmatized mark is shared with other members of a group and is thus a social identity (collective) versus seen (by self or others) as a solely individual mark (personal)” (Major et al. 2018: 5; see also Dovidio et al. 2000). A case in point is the stigma associated with blacklisted artists during the “red scare” in Hollywood between 1945 and 1960 (Pontikes et al. 2010). Since the vast majority of retracted publications were co-authored (Brainard et al. 2018), the huge number of retracted publications archived in the RWDB and other databases would mean that thousands of researchers have a record of retraction. Researchers with a record of retraction tend to be perceived as a deviant group within the academic community and thus bear a collective rather than personal identity. Moreover, because of the prevalence of retractions due to misconduct (Xu and Hu in press-a; Brainard et al. 2018), the accountable author of a retracted publication is often seen as one of those bad guys (or rotten apples) in science. Thus, authors of retracted publications are perceived as sharing something in common (i.e., grave violations of research and publication ethics) and consequently a collective identity. Notably, although bearers of some stigmas may form a social group to fight against the stigmas (e.g., racialism) imposed on them (Jones et al. 1984), it is unlikely for authors of retracted publications to organize and engage in such self-protective group activities.
Functional Justifications of Retraction Stigma
Potential origins of stigma have been identified by scholars (e.g., Cottrell and Neuberg 2005; Kurzban and Leary 2001; Neuberg et al. 2000), taking a social evolutionary approach and following three fundamental propositions formulated by Cottrell and Neuberg (2005: 771):
(a) Humans evolved as highly interdependent social beings; (b) effectively functioning groups tend to possess particular social structures and processes; and (c) individuals possess psychological mechanisms “designed” by biological and cultural evolution to take advantage of the opportunities provided by group living and to protect themselves from threats to group living.
Based on the assumption that effective group living is reciprocity-based (i.e., depending on group members’ sharing of effort, knowledge, and material resources), Neuberg et al. (2000: 34) argue that stigmas follow one fundamental principle: “People will stigmatize those individuals whose characteristics and actions are seen as threatening or hindering the effective functioning of their groups”. Accordingly, they identify three types of stigma targets, namely, non-reciprocators (e.g., thieves and the physically disabled), the treacherous (e.g., cheaters and traitors), and those who counter-socialize (e.g., homosexuals and heretics).
In the context of retraction, retracted publications affect the common good of the academic community and meaningful communication between academics, and authors of retracted publications engaging in misconduct can be justifiably discredited as selfish, treacherous exploiters who game the system of academic publishing for personal interests. Therefore, there is ground for authors of retracted publications to be stigmatized within the academic community. In particular, journal authorities and home institutions of authors of retracted publications, as gatekeepers of academic integrity, would be highly motivated to deter potential retraction-engendering acts through the stigmatization of retraction (Hu and Xu 2020). Furthermore, stigma can arouse shame and guilt in the stigmatized (Ablon 2002), and emotions such as guilt and shame often deter people from violating social norms (Elster 1998). According to reintegrative shaming theory (Braithwaite 1989), deviants tend to change and conform when shamed. As pointed out by Horwitz (1990: 224–225), “informal sanctions are more powerful than formal ones because coercive social control is effective to the extent that it harms reputational status and social attachments”. This observation is supported by an experimental study (Brocas et al. 2021) which showed that individuals were significantly less likely to steal when shaming rather than punishment was introduced, suggesting that social image plays an important role in shaping people’s decision-making and deterring selfish behaviors. As stigma-generated shame and guilt can function as a powerful deterrent, journal authorities may employ retraction stigma as a weapon to fight against potential retraction-engendering behaviors.
Since stigmatization is “a power-laden process” (Link and Phelan 2001: 371) and because journal authorities are more powerful than authors, it is within the former’s purview to exploit retraction stigma when handling retractions. Phelan et al. (2008) propose that stigmatization can enhance group or personal interest by serving three social functions, which are collectively conceptualized by Link and Phelan (2014) as stigma power: (a) keeping people down (i.e., exploitation and domination through stigmatizing those with less power to maintain inter-group inequalities through denial of resources), (b) keeping people in (i.e., norm enforcement through deterring deviants from violating ingroup norms), and (c) keeping people away (i.e., disease avoidance through alerting group members to threats to group well-being). The most important goal of stigmatization, as argued by Dijker (2013: 23), is “for those in power to maintain and legitimize their position by publicly associating those that threaten their power and values with a bad reputation and exposing them as ‘bad examples’ and objects of public punishment and denigration”. To help fulfil their duty as gatekeepers of academic integrity, journal authorities are in a position to exercise the power of retraction stigma by keeping authors of retracted publications in. Notably, since published problematic research is metaphorically viewed as a “virus” which contaminates the literature when not handled effectively (Montgomery and Oliver 2017: 53), fellow researchers should be distanced from retracted publications. In this sense, retraction stigma can also serve the function of keeping fellow researchers away.
Researchers competing with authors of retracted publications and those victimized by retractions can be as motivated as the gatekeepers of academic integrity, if not more so, to stigmatize authors of retracted publications because their own interests are harmed by the latter in various ways. Such stigmatization can psychologically and behaviorally exclude authors of retracted publications (especially repeat offenders) from the academic community. Retraction stigma of this nature is consistent with Neuberg et al.'s (2000: 51) proposition regarding outgroup stigmatization; that is, the onset of outgroup stigmatization depends on the need to compete for valuable resources, and when resources become insufficient, “intergroup competition heats up and stigmatization should follow”. The institution of science provides fertile ground for such stigmatization because it is a jungle replete with competition and rivalry (Toch 1981). Thus, both individual and collective interests can be served by exercising retraction stigma power. Psychologically, stigmatizing others can enhance the stigmatizers’ self-esteem (Dovidio et al. 2000). Self-esteem enhancement can be achieved through both interpersonal downward comparison (Wills 1981) and favorable inter-group comparison (Crocker et al. 1998; Dovidio et al. 2000), which can “reward” stigmatizers with competitive group advantages (Allport 1954/1979; Tajfel and Turner 1979). Therefore, it would not be surprising that retraction-free researchers may stigmatize authors of retracted publications, especially when in direct competition with them for limited academic resources or when victimized by retractions. A personal experience is a case in point. Learning about the first author’s research on retraction, a friend of his working at a large reputable hospital approached him for a list of her colleagues with a secret record of retractions so that she could win out a stiff competition for promotion. In such cases, retraction stigma is weaponized to advantage stigmatizers in both psychological and material terms.
Targets and Stakeholders of Retraction Stigma
Retraction has two sides. On the one hand, it is an undesirable phenomenon that reflects the failure of the current quality control mechanism of science, especially the traditional pre-publication peer review system (Hilgard and Jamieson 2017; Marcus and Oransky 2017). On the other hand, retraction also has a positive role to play because it is intended to function as a post-publication self-correcting mechanism to clean up the contaminated literature (Marcus and Oransky 2017). In other words, it is not retraction itself but retraction-engendering misbehaviors and the malfunctioning quality control system of science that are at fault. Accordingly, targets of retraction stigma are entities that have committed retraction-engendering acts and gatekeepers who are entrusted to ensure the quality and integrity of science, that is, authors of retracted publications, their home institutions, and journal authorities, among others.
In the light of attribution theory (Corrigan et al. 2003; Weiner 1995), the more accountable a target is held for the occurrence of retraction, the more stigmatized the target would be by the retraction. Apparently, since they are expected to take responsibility for the validity and ethicality of their published research, authors of retracted publications are the primary targets of retraction stigma, unless other entities, such as journal authorities and peer researchers, are found accountable for the retraction of their publications. Notably, when a retracted publication is co-authored by two or more researchers, the retraction-engendering act may not involve every co-author. However, even when innocent co-authors are distinguished from accountable ones, the former may still be stigmatized due to their close association with the latter. This is a case of courtesy stigma, in which the retraction stigma “spread[s] from the stigmatized individual [guilty co-author] to his close connexions [innocent co-author(s)]” (Goffman 1963/1990: 43).
Journal authorities may become targets of retraction stigma in two situations. First, they made honest errors or were involved in a conflict of interest in handling submissions. The RWDB archived 817 such retractions by December 31, 2020. Second, even when not involved in retraction-engendering acts, journal authorities as gatekeepers for academic integrity may be perceived as partly liable for failure to detect and prevent retractable submissions before they were published. This is another form of courtesy retraction stigma. Similarly, home institutions of authors of retracted publications may also become targets of courtesy retraction stigma because they are expected to oversee their employees’ compliance with academic norms and are consequently likely to be seen as indirectly accountable for their employees’ misconduct.
Courtesy retraction stigma can be justified or even escalated into retraction stigma. The justification or escalation takes place when those victims of courtesy retraction stigma do not play a positive role in correcting the contaminated literature or making known the reasons for retraction. This is because stigmatized individuals are perceived to be not only accountable for the cause of their stigmatization (Jones et al. 1984) but also responsible for eliminating the threat or damage posed by their stigmatizing conditions (Deaux et al. 1995). However, more often than not, the process of retraction is complicated and difficult due to various stakeholders’ conflicting interests (Marcus and Oransky 2017). For instance, not all co-authors may agree to a decision of retraction (Xu and Hu 2021). Journal authorities may be reluctant to retract publications or may issue retraction notices without specifying reasons for retraction out of certain considerations (Marcus and Oransky 2017). Authors of retracted publications and their home institutions do not always behave proactively or cooperatively during investigations into allegations of retraction-engendering acts (Marcus and Oransky 2017). In all those cases, it is justifiable to subject authors of retracted publications, their home institutions, and journal authorities to retraction stigma.
As a stigmatizing attribute/condition exists in social interactions or relationships (Goffman 1963/1990; Jones et al. 1984) and because stigmatization is intended to ensure effective group functioning and collective survival (Cottrell and Neuberg 2005; Kurzban and Leary 2001; Neuberg et al. 2000), retraction stigma involves a variety of stakeholders that can be categorised into three concentric circles according to their stakes in the retracted research (Fig. 2). The inner circle consists of authors of retracted publications, their home institutions, journal authorities, third-party governing bodies of academic integrity, and research funding agencies, given their greater likelihood of being held responsible for the cause and handling of retraction-engendering acts. The middle circle includes three types of peer researchers whose interests are affected by the retracted research: (a) the victimized, whose published works have been plagiarized, whose unpublished data/manuscripts have been stolen, or whose publications have to be retracted because they were unknowingly based on the retracted research; (b) the competitors, who rival authors of retracted publications for personal interests (e.g., tenure, promotion, career advancement, academic authority, and monetary rewards); and (c) the interested, who are academics working in areas different from that of the retracted research but having a general interest in the latter. The outer circle includes mistreated research participants, consumers of retracted research findings, and non-academic sponsors of retracted research. Individuals (mostly authors of retracted publications) liable for retraction-engendering acts lie at the centre of the three concentric circles. The inner and middle circles are comprised of only people who work in academia, whereas the outer circle includes the general public.