By now you may have heard about the resignation of Stanford University president Marc Tessier-Lavigne. The move came last month after a report by a special committee of the university’s Board of Trustees found Tessier-Lavigne had, among other things, “failed to decisively and forthrightly correct mistakes in the scientific record” on at least four different occasions.

You may have thought, given the voluminous coverage of this case, that Tessier-Lavigne’s defenestration demonstrates such failures are highly unusual and typically lead to significant sanctions.

Neither is true. If—and given the history of such episodes, that’s a big if—journals end up retracting the three papers Tessier-Lavigne has said he has agreed to retract (two in Science and one in Cell), the number will represent less than a tenth of a percent of the retractions we expect to see this year. We at Retraction Watch, which tracks retracted papers, estimate that figure to be about 5,000—a tiny fraction of how many retractions should happen but don’t. And the careers of most researchers whose names are on the retractions that do happen haven’t suffered a scratch. The ones whose papers haven’t been retracted have even fewer worries.

From a distance, using history-erasing rose-colored glasses, it is reasonable to place the blame squarely on Tessier-Lavigne for the fact that his now disgraced work remained in the scientific record without any flags. After all, as the investigative committee noted in its report, problems with the research surfaced “in 2001, the early 2010s, 2015-16, and March 2021.”

In 2001, the committee wrote, Tessier-Lavigne told a colleague who brought issues to his attention “in writing that he would take corrective action, including both contacting the journal and attempting to issue a correction.” He did not.

Things went differently in 2015 and 2016 after the appearance of comments about the papers on PubPeer, a forum for discussions about the validity of scientific papers. “Dr. Tessier-Lavigne did an able job of initially pursuing corrective efforts with the journals Cell and Science between 2015-16, despite the uncooperativeness of another co-author during this time,” the committee wrote. But Cell determined a correction wasn’t necessary, and Science said it would publish Tessier-Lavigne’s corrections—and then didn’t.

The report goes on to describe two more cases involving one of the Science papers, as well as a Nature paper that we could at best charitably describe as falling through the cracks. To be clear, Tessier-Lavigne’s inaction is a big problem worthy of sanction, as the report noted. (We should mention that he will remain a tenured professor at Stanford.) Even the attempt to correct—rather than retract—papers that demonstrated evidence of image manipulation is a hint at how often the record is not fixed decisively.

But omitting the failures of the relevant journals (which are among the world’s most prestigious science titles, we might add) would be a serious mistake that will ensure the problem happens again. Holden Thorp, editor in chief of Science, took to Twitter in the aftermath of the report to announce that he would have pulled two of Tessier-Lavigne’s papers in the journal had the researcher not already requested the move. That is, to again be charitable, not all that reassuring. While a spokesperson for Science recently told Retraction Watch it “has been consistently more aggressive about correcting the record, where needed, in recent years,” it has a history of failing to prioritize retractions and not just in this case.

Science is not alone. Publishers have outsourced much of their quality control of late to volunteer sleuths despite journals’ assurances that peer review accomplishes that role, and those investigators routinely say many of their well-founded critiques go unheeded or underplayed by journal editors. Some of this intransigence is no doubt because publish-or-perish incentives prompt authors to hire attorneys to fight retractions. Publishers may believe that acknowledging errors will damage their reputation—and their bottom line. And many wait for universities to request retractions, although plenty ignore those requests for years, too.

But universities, especially but not exclusively private schools, such as Stanford, have few incentives to lustrate. As we and others have argued, academic institutions are woefully opaque when it comes to their investigations of research misconduct. Not only do the inquiries sometimes take years to complete, but the reports that follow typically are as bare bones as the schools’ lawyers will allow. We congratulate Stanford’s board on releasing its report on Tessier-Lavigne publicly, although the fact that the document comes on letterhead from the alabaster-shoed firm of Kirkland & Ellis suggests that the contents may have been buffed and bowdlerized as much as possible. And we note that it seems to have taken reporting by a first-year student at Stanford to prompt action in a case that was years old, so the university is not quite covering itself in glory, either.

Some argue that there is room for optimism in what have become regular floods of retractions that overwhelm scientific publishing’s banks. Hundreds at a time are no longer unusual. But most of those big hauls are because of evidence of activity by paper mills, which sell authorships, faked peer reviews and entire manuscripts to authors desperate to publish. A more cynical view—one we espouse—is that publishers are making a big deal out of such episodes only because they can paint themselves as victims of sophisticated wrongdoers. That narrative of course omits the fact that publishers poured as much gasoline as they could find on the publish-or-perish fire, and it threatens to distract us from what might be more consequential fraud.

Getting rid of that set of perverse incentives would be a good idea. So would rewarding fraud detection instead of punishing whistleblowers. Scientists, universities and publishers may believe that their reasons for failing to correct the record are sound and perhaps even good for science. But at a time when so many are rightfully concerned about a lack of trust in science, they might want to look in the mirror and realize that every time an obvious flaw is allowed to stand without comment, another justifiable skeptic gets their wings.

This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.