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Record Surge in Research Paper Retractions in 2023, Suggests Analysis by Nature

Another serious concern surrounding this phenomenon is that the growth of scientific papers lags behind the rising rate of retractions.
Research papers

Image for representational purpose. Credit: Towards Data Science

Any new findings, whether in science or other fields, are conveyed to the world through the publishing of the results in research journals. This is an established age-old way of conducting research. The journals are supposed to do a thorough examination of the veracity of the experiments, the findings, and the importance and for this, the journals undertake the process known as ‘peer review’, where the research papers are sent to experts of the concerned fields and their comments are taken.

But, even after all the rigorous processes, journals claim to ascertain before publishing that some papers may get retracted. The process of retraction involves pointing out a research paper as having serious flaws to the extent that the findings cannot be relied upon. In some cases, papers may be removed from publication. Retractions are done when published research is questioned by experts based on its findings, the experiments involved, or the whole underlying idea.

When the frequency of retractions increases, it should be considered a serious issue in academia. This year witnessed a record number of retractions adding up to over 10,000, according to an analysis by Nature, one of the leading academic journals in the world. The Nature analysis suggests that publishers of the retracted papers struggle to clean up the sham papers and the fraudulent peer-review process. Nature analysis suggests that among the countries that produce large research, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Russia, and China account for the highest rates of retractions over the past two decades.

The analysis found that a bulk of those retractions came from Hindawi, which is a subsidiary of the London-based publisher Wiley. In 2023 so far, “the Hindawi journals have pulled down over 8,000 articles for reasons like ‘concerns that the peer review process has been compromised’ and ‘systematic manipulation of the publication and peer-review process’, after investigations prompted by internal editors and by research-integrity sleuths who raised questions about incoherent text and irrelevant references in thousands of papers”—wrote Richard Van Noorden in an article about Nature analysis.

One important aspect of the retractions is that most of them from Hindawi appeared in special issues (issues dedicated to a specific topic or subject of a field of research). In a previous article published in Nature on November 8, Holly Else wrote that hundreds of science papers were retracted from reputed journals’ special issues. Else wrote in the article that fraudsters used special issues to manipulate the publication process. The special issues often have articles that are judged by guest editors and it upended the process of deep and thorough examination of the research papers.

Reportedly, Wiley announced on December 6 to stop the brand name Hindawi altogether. Notably, Wiley also temporarily stopped the publication of special issues towards the end of 2022. The publishing company is expected to lose US$35 million and $40 million in revenue this fiscal year, according to Matthew Kissner, the interim chief executive of the publication house, as written by Richard Noorden in his article.

Even if thousands of papers are retracted, their influence on other scientific works may still remain, because these papers might have been cited thousands of times in other papers by the time they are retracted. Citation or giving reference to previously published research is an important act in academic writing. Previous findings, in many cases, can be the starting point for new researchers. If the previous findings are proven faulty, then the new research is surely questionable. On it, Guillaume Cabanac, a computer scientist at the University of Toulouse, France, was quoted to have commented: “Hindawi’s retracted papers might have been mostly sham articles, but they were still collectively cited more than 35,000 times.”

Cabanac tracks the problems in papers and has previously found the ‘tortured phrases’ in some papers. The tortured phrases are strange words used in some articles to evade the process of plagiarism detection. Moreover, there has been undisclosed use of AI (Artificial Intelligence) tools like the ChatGPT.

Another serious concern surrounding this phenomenon is that the growth of scientific papers lags behind the rising rate of retractions.

However, it should be noted that in every retraction, deliberate misconduct may not be the case. Some are initiated by authors themselves who find serious errors in their work later on.

Nature analysis found that the retraction rate has grown three times in the past decade and in 2022, it exceeded 0.2%. Among the countries that have published more than a lakh papers in the past two decades, Saudi Arabia has the highest rate, which is 30 retractions per 10,000 articles published. This excludes the retraction of the conference papers (the papers that are presented at various conferences). If conference papers are accounted for as well, then withdrawal from the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) in New York City puts China at the top.

Noteworthily, India has a retraction rate lower in comparison to those who lead -- 15.2 retractions per 10,000 articles published.

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