Could Nature’s 2-year torrent of paper retractions be a good thing?

The Flood

The last two years at Nature Magazine have seen a surprising wave of paper retractions. In 2013 and now just so far in 2014, Nature has retracted a total of 14 papers.

How unusual is that?

Historically, Nature retracts relatively few papers, perhaps just under two per year on average.

What the heck has been going on in 2013-2014?

Let’s break it down.

NatureLast year in 2013, Nature retracted six papers, an unusually large number.

Just year-to-date in 2014, things seem to have gone from bad to worse as Nature has already retracted eight papers and it’s only the beginning of September.

Higher Impact = More Retractions?

Surprisingly, the eight yanked Nature papers so far this year, running at a rate of about one per month, are not a one-year record for Nature (at least not yet), which was set in 2003 at 10.

I asked Ivan Oransky of Retraction Watch for his thoughts on the recent retraction situation at Nature and he provided some helpful context:

“In general, Nature does follow the pattern of higher impact factor journals having more retractions, although historically Cell, Science, and NEJM have had a higher “retraction index:”http://retractionwatch.com/2011/08/11/is-it-time-for-a-retraction-index/ Whether that trend is due to more “envelope-pushing” papers in those journals, more scrutiny, both, or something else entirely is an open question.”

The question he poses there at the end captures the critical puzzle here as to the uncertainty of interpreting retraction rates. I would add to that question and his possible answer of “something else entirely” the additional at least hypothetical possibility that the large number of recent retractions resulted from too little scrutiny earlier on in the publication editorial and review process at Nature.

Again, exactly how atypical is this spike of retractions at Nature? Oransky added some useful historical context:

“In 2010, Nature published what it referred to as an “unusually large number” of retractions — 4 — and did some soul-searching: 

http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v468/n7320/full/468006b.html After eight months in 2014, they’ve published twice that.”

The trend lately seems very notable.

Deflection of Responsibility?

From that 2010 editorial, Nature argued four years back that scientists are primarily hurt by retractions and so perhaps should be primarily responsible for detecting misconduct that might lead to retractions:

“Ultimately, it comes down to the researchers — those most affected by the acts — to remain observant and diligent in pursuing their concerns wherever they lead, and where necessary, to correct the literature promptly. Too often, such conscientious behaviour is not rewarded as it should be.”

Frankly, these words ring somewhat hollow today, particularly now after the STAP paper debacle. In March Nature rejected a paper from Dr. Ken Lee reporting that the STAP method failed and there was no apparent logical reason given for the rejection. Ken has been the most conscientious of all researchers trying to determine experimentally what the real deal was with STAP.

After it retracted the STAP papers just a few months ago in summer 2014, Nature editorialized about that situation and again seemed to deflect the notion that it held responsibility:

“We have concluded that we and the referees could not have detected the problems that fatally undermined the papers. The referees’ rigorous reports quite rightly took on trust what was presented in the papers.”

No reviewers or editors can catch all problems in manuscripts of course, but I’m skeptical of that blanket assertion that none of the scads of problems in the STAP papers could have been detected.

Exploring Potential Causes

Getting back to the broader trend, what else might be going on that does explain the more general flood of recent Nature retractions the last two years?

Is this retraction spike a Nature Publication Group (NPG) problem or just something at Nature Magazine itself? It sure seems the latter. For example, Nature Medicine had just 1 retraction in 2013 and has had none in 2014. Nature Genetics and Nature Cell Biology had no retractions at all in 2013 or 2014. Another NPG journal, Oncogene, had no retractions in 2013 and just 1 so far in 2014. So this is something specific to Nature.

Could Nature blame its two-year glut of retractions on the arguably volatile characteristics of stem cell research and publishing?

While four of the eight Nature retractions this year did involve stem cell-related papers including three STAP-related publications, this doesn’t necessarily link up with a broader trend of prominent stem cell paper retractions lately. For comparison, I looked at the rates of total paper retractions and of specifically stem cell-related paper retractions at Science and at two journals focusing on stem cells, Cell Stem Cell and Stem Cells. There is no specific trend of increased retractions of stem cell-related papers at these other journals or in total retractions either. Cell Stem Cell, notably, has never to my knowledge retracted a paper and retractions at the journal Stem Cells are rare.

Even if you discount the three STAP cell-related retractions this year at Nature that still leaves 5 others just in 2014 so far and there doesn’t seem to be any logic for giving Nature a pass on the STAP debacle.

It’s safe to conclude that it’s not stem cells to blame so we get back to the key question: what is going on at Nature?

I contacted Nature asking them about this situation a few days ago, but there has no been no response so far. If there is one, I will post it.

Is Nature just publishing more total papers per year lately and they are seeing more retractions due simply to more published manuscript volume? No, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

Another formal possibility is that this is just a fluky two-year period of bad luck for Nature. Alternatively, one might speculate that Nature is taking much greater risks than it used to in publishing lately. If that’s the case, a logical question that follows is why would Nature be taking such risks?

More Retractions a Good Thing?

Or is it perhaps, as Oransky included in his possibilities, a result of Nature being just more likely than other journals and more likely than itself in past years, to yank flawed papers these days? If that’s the case then that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Apparently some folks think more broadly that the overall increased rates of retraction in science publishing could in fact be an outright good thing. For example, Daniele Fanelli asserted in a PLOS Medicine piece that the growing rate of retractions overall in science might indeed be a positive thing for the most part. He argued that it most likely reflects a higher propensity to the pull the trigger to yank deeply flawed papers rather than an increase in the actual absolute rate of such flawed papers overall. In talking with Oransky on this, he pondered the possible question arising from Fanelli’s argument: perhaps Nature is just retracting closer to the “right” number of papers, while other journals aren’t retracting enough? 

So could the major spike in retractions in Nature the last 2 years be viewed as a positive?

What do you think?

Oransky summed it all up from his perspective when he told me One thing’s for sure: We’ll continue watching Nature!”

Some notes.

Note the one retracted paper that kind of bridges between 2013 and 2014 was counted here as a 2013 retraction, while the retraction of the Austin Smith newsy, non-research piece in Nature on STAP cells was counted as a 2014 retraction.

Here on this blog I publicly called on Nature to retract its two STAP research papers earlier this year. The authors of those papers eventually retracted the papers. I don’t imagine that my blogging the opinion that Nature should retract the two STAP research papers factored at all into the authors’ decisions but I thought that since I’m now blogging about Nature retracting a lot of papers this year that I should at least mention that I was of the opinion that retracting the two STAP papers earlier this year would be appropriate.