What’s behind paper retractions? (5)
by Adam Marcus and Ivan Oransky, Labtimes 06/2011

Photo: zettberlin / Source: PHOTOCASE


  • A leading Japanese virologist gets a ten-year publishing ban from the American Society of Microbiology – which publishes Infection and Immunity, The Journal of Clinical Microbiology, and others – after many of his articles were found to have evidence of data manipulation.
  • The Indian Journal of Dermatology bans a group of Tunisian researchers from publishing in the journal for five years after the authors were found to have plagiarised.
  • The editor of The Journal of Clinical Microbiology lets readers know that an author who – among other things – plagiarised in a paper will be banned from publishing in American Society for Microbiology (ASM) journals for two years.

What these items have in common, of course, is that journals or their publishers have imposed serious sanctions on authors guilty of misdeeds. But as we’ve learned in more than a year of covering retraction notices like these on Retraction Watch, not everyone agrees such bans are a good idea.

Liz Wager, chair of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), says disciplining researchers should be left to institutions and employers. “That’s not the editors’ role. We stress (in the COPE guidelines) that the purpose of retraction is to clean up the literature and ensure its integrity NOT to punish authors ….. so, if you ban them that rather goes against the spirit of the thing.”

Wager also notes that there are potential legal issues: COPE has been warned that such bans could be considered “restraint of trade”. That’s something International Association of Scientific, Technical & Medical (STM) Publishers CEO Michael Mabe also mentions.

STM doesn’t have a particular sanctions policy, “Other than that we, of course, deprecate misconduct,” says Mabe. “As you probably know, publishers are very cautious about applying sanctions for ethical misconduct. The reason for this is that ‘banning’ someone would count as potentially restraint of trade and could be legally actionable by the author against the publisher (or indeed the editor instituting such a ban).”

The usual view, says Mabe, is that “sanctions are a matter for the author’s host institution (with whom they have an employer-employee relationship) or with a learned society.”

Some of this, then, is a question of who’s doing the banning. In the case of ASM, the editors were really just acting on behalf of a learned society. But individual journal bans, it would seem, go against COPE and STM guidelines.

Still, Wager acknowledges that “quite a few editors” don’t agree with COPE’s recommendation against bans. And we – with a lot of respect for COPE, we should note, whose guidelines we cite and agree with in nearly every other respect – are also among those who disagree.

While many fraudster researchers are punished, many others skate away free. Putting another arrow in editors’ sanction quiver is a good thing.

There is another precedent for such bans: When the U.S. Office of Research Integrity (ORI) finds someone guilty of fraud, it typically gets them to agree to exclude themselves from contracting or subcontracting with the U.S. government for some period of time, and also from serving on any Public Health Service boards – e.g. NIH funding peer review committees.

So: Bring on the bans.

The authors run the blog Retraction Watch:

Last Changed: 03.05.2012