Corrections, Retractions, Republications and Version Control
Honest errors are a part of science and publishing and require publication of a correction when they are detected. Corrections are needed for errors of fact. Matters of debate are best handled as letters to the editor, as print or electronic correspondence, or as posts in a journal-sponsored online forum. Updates of previous publications (e.g., an updated systematic review or clinical guideline) are considered a new publication rather than a version of a previously published article.
If a correction is needed, our journals should follow these minimum standards:
- Our journals should publish a correction notice as soon as possible detailing changes from and citing the original publication; the correction should be on an electronic or numbered print page that is included in an electronic or a print Table of Contents to ensure proper indexing.
- Our journals should post a new article version with details of the changes from the original version and the date(s) on which the changes were made.
- Our journals should archive all prior versions of the article. This archive can be either directly accessible to readers or can be made available to the reader on request.
- Previous electronic versions should prominently note that there are more recent versions of the article.
- The citation should be to the most recent version.
Pervasive errors can result from a coding problem or a miscalculation and may result in extensive inaccuracies throughout an article. If such errors do not change the direction or significance of the results, interpretations, and conclusions of the article, a correction should be published that follows the minimum standards noted above.
Errors serious enough to invalidate a paper’s results and conclusions may require retraction. However, retraction with republication (also referred to as “replacement”) can be considered in cases where honest error (e.g., a misclassification or miscalculation) leads to a major change in the direction or significance of the results, interpretations, and conclusions. If the error is judged to be unintentional, the underlying science appears valid, and the changed version of the paper survives further review and editorial scrutiny, then retraction with republication of the changed paper, with an explanation, allows full correction of the scientific literature. In such cases, it is helpful to show the extent of the changes in supplementary material or in an appendix, for complete transparency.
Scientific Misconduct, Expressions of Concern, and Retraction
Scientific misconduct in research and non-research publications includes but is not necessarily limited to data fabrication; data falsification including deceptive manipulation of images; purposeful failure to disclose conflicts of interest; and plagiarism. Some people consider failure to publish the results of clinical trials and other human studies a form of scientific misconduct. While each of these practices is problematic, they are not equivalent. Each situation requires individual assessment by relevant stakeholders. When scientific misconduct is alleged, or concerns are otherwise raised about the conduct or integrity of work described in submitted or published papers, the editor should initiate appropriate procedures detailed by and adapted from the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), consider informing the institutions and funders, and may choose to publish an expression of concern pending the outcomes of those procedures. If the procedures involve an investigation at the authors’ institution, the editor should seek to discover the outcome of that investigation, notify readers of the outcome if appropriate, and if the investigation proves scientific misconduct, publish a retraction of the article. There may be circumstances in which no misconduct is proven, but an exchange of letters to the editor could be published to highlight matters of debate to readers.
Expressions of concern and retractions should not simply be a letter to the editor. Rather, they should be prominently labelled, appear on an electronic or numbered print page that is included in an electronic or a print Table of Contents to ensure proper indexing, and include in their heading the title of the original article. Online, the retraction and original article should be linked in both directions and the retracted article should be clearly labelled as retracted in all its forms (Abstract, full text, PDF). Ideally, the authors of the retraction should be the same as those of the article, but if they are unwilling or unable the editor may under certain circumstances accept retractions by other responsible persons, or the editor may be the sole author of the retraction or expression of concern. The text of the retraction should explain why the article is being retracted and include a complete citation reference to that article. Retracted articles should remain in the public domain and be clearly labelled as retracted.
The validity of previous work by the author of a fraudulent paper cannot be assumed. Editors may ask the author’s institution to assure them of the validity of other work published in their journals, or they may retract it. If this is not done, editors may choose to publish an announcement expressing concern that the validity of previously published work is uncertain.
The integrity of research may also be compromised by inappropriate methodology that could lead to retraction.
See COPE flowcharts for further guidance on retractions and expressions of concern.