The survey found some significant geographical differences. Retracted papers with lead authors based in historical scientific superpowers, such as the United States and Germany, were more likely to be linked to fraud. In emerging scientific powers such as India and China, however, plagiarism and duplication caused more of the retractions. “These trends may reflect differences in incentives, cultural norms and proficiency in English among these countries,” says Fang.
Ivan Oransky, a New York-based journalist and co-founder of Retraction Watch, suggests setting up a ‘transparency index’ for journals, to rank them on criteria such as the clarity of their retraction notices. The idea, which he says he would be keen to work on, could provide a much-needed incentive for journals to improve their performance in this area. Data from the current study could also serve as a basis for a retractions database to help scientists avoid wasting time trying to replicate or build on retracted work, he adds.
“I’m not necessarily opposed to the idea, but I have concerns about how such a database could be properly maintained and updated,” says Fang. “Our study is merely a snapshot. Creating an accurate, centralized database that could be used as an ongoing resource would be a considerable undertaking.”