Science and Engineering Ethics

, Volume 24, Issue 1, pp 189–206 | Cite as

Doing the Right Thing: A Qualitative Investigation of Retractions Due to Unintentional Error

  • Mohammad Hosseini
  • Medard Hilhorst
  • Inez de Beaufort
  • Daniele Fanelli
Original Paper


Retractions solicited by authors following the discovery of an unintentional error—what we henceforth call a “self-retraction”—are a new phenomenon of growing importance, about which very little is known. Here we present results of a small qualitative study aimed at gaining preliminary insights about circumstances, motivations and beliefs that accompanied the experience of a self-retraction. We identified retraction notes that unambiguously reported an honest error and that had been published between the years 2010 and 2015. We limited our sample to retractions with at least one co-author based in the Netherlands, Belgium, United Kingdom, Germany or a Scandinavian country, and we invited these authors to a semi-structured interview. Fourteen authors accepted our invitation. Contrary to our initial assumptions, most of our interviewees had not originally intended to retract their paper. They had contacted the journal to request a correction and the decision to retract had been made by journal editors. All interviewees reported that having to retract their own publication made them concerned for their scientific reputation and career, often causing considerable stress and anxiety. Interviewees also encountered difficulties in communicating with the journal and recalled other procedural issues that had unnecessarily slowed down the process of self-retraction. Intriguingly, however, all interviewees reported how, contrary to their own expectations, the self-retraction had brought no damage to their reputation and in some cases had actually improved it. We also examined the ethical motivations that interviewees ascribed, retrospectively, to their actions and found that such motivations included a combination of moral and prudential (i.e. pragmatic) considerations. These preliminary results suggest that scientists would welcome innovations to facilitate the process of self-retraction.


Integrity Error Misconduct Retractions Corrections Moral reasoning 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Mohammad Hosseini
    • 1
  • Medard Hilhorst
    • 2
  • Inez de Beaufort
    • 2
  • Daniele Fanelli
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of Philosophy, Ethics InstituteUtrecht UniversityUtrechtThe Netherlands
  2. 2.Department of Medical Ethics and PhilosophyErasmus University Medical Center RotterdamRotterdamThe Netherlands
  3. 3.Meta-Research Innovation Center at Stanford (METRICS)Stanford UniversityPalo AltoUSA

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