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


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.

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Correspondence to Daniele Fanelli.

Appendix: Questionnaire—Retraction Project

Appendix: Questionnaire—Retraction Project

  1. 1.

    What exactly happened?

    Follow up-questions:

    • What led to the idea that something was wrong, was it clear at first?

    • When was this moment?

    • Who were involved at that very first moment?

    • When were the other co-authors notified?

    • How did the co-authors respond?

    • How did the debate unfold: did the team discuss the matter.

    • How long did it take to make a decision, how much time from initial doubts to sending the retraction letter?

  2. 2.

    Can you describe your correspondence with the Journal?

    Follow up-questions:

    • Which author(s) did the request? On behalf of all the co-authors? (If not, why?)

    • How did you describe to the Journal what was wrong? Did you elaborate on the circumstances of the case?

    • What did you ask (article retraction or just a correction)?

    • What was the Journal’s response to the request?

    • How long did it take before a decision was made?

    • What reason did the Journal give for retraction?

    • Do you think this response was adequate, as it should be?

    • Do you think the communication with the Journal was satisfactory?

  3. 3.

    How did your communication with your colleagues and others evolve?

    Follow up-questions:

    • With which persons did you talk in the first place? (Co-authors; research leader; colleague; a friend perhaps outside the work environment)

    • Who were involved in the decision to inform the Journal (solely co-authors or also others?)?

    • Were all in agreement with each other, had you/others to be convinced?

    • What was the final, decisive motivation to inform the Journal, what was your main concern?

    • What if you did not notify the journal, what would have been the consequences?

    • If objections were raised and concerns expressed (against informing), what were these?

    • How long did it take from the idea that something was wrong to informing the Journal?

    • What were the obstacles, what were the driving factors?

  4. 4.

    What did you learn? What can the scientific community learn from this experience?

    Follow up-questions:

    • What would encourage researchers to behave the way you did?

    • How can, in your perception, honest research and scientific integrity be facilitated and promoted?

    • What are, in your perception, the main obstacles and threats to research integrity, i.e. honest reporting?

    • Which factors, motives and circumstances, have led in your case to this outcome (request for retraction)?

    • Have there been any harmful consequences?

    • In retrospect, do the positive consequences (of informing the Journal) outweigh the negative consequences?

    • What were these consequences in your case?

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Hosseini, M., Hilhorst, M., de Beaufort, I. et al. Doing the Right Thing: A Qualitative Investigation of Retractions Due to Unintentional Error. Sci Eng Ethics 24, 189–206 (2018).

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  • Integrity
  • Error
  • Misconduct
  • Retractions
  • Corrections
  • Moral reasoning