Whose fault is a retraction?

pour over coffee in camping tent

A journal called Advances in Materials Science and Engineering retracted a paper it published and issued the following notice, excerpted from Retraction Watch, December 22, 2022:

Advances in Materials Science and Engineering has retracted the article titled “Monitoring of Sports Health Indicators Based on Wearable Nanobiosensors” [1]. Since publication, readers have raised concerns that the error bars in Figure 9 appear to be the letter “T.” Moreover, it has been noted that the authors state that “no datasets were generated or analyzed during the current study” which is contradictory to the study described. This therefore raises questions about the reliability of the underlying data and the article’s conclusions.

… and about the journal, surely? This is a good example of a disingenuous retraction notice: it puts all the blame on a paper and its authors instead of admitting that the journal’s peer-review process is a sham.

Assume, strictly for the sake of argument, that the authors weren’t aware of what they were doing, and now they have a retraction to their name. Retractions of this nature don’t look good, either on the authors or on the journal. Yet the journal was willing to let this happen, probably because it admits bad papers into its pages presuming (fairly) that the chances of their being detected are very small. As a result, the papers’ authors have technically published many papers and, if the journal has a publishing fee, it has made a good amount of money. However, the retraction becomes a black mark on the scientist’s résumé. The incentives are lopsided and the journal doesn’t seem to be interested in fixing that.

In the present case, of course, the authors had to have known they were being dishonest in composing their paper the way they did. But when journals retract a paper because it was found, after publication, to contain plagiarised text – but which is legitimate in every other way – the authors don’t at all deserve all the blame (even less if English isn’t their first language) because the journal should have caught it before publication.

The website of Advances in Materials Science and Engineering, a Hindawi title, sports a diagram of an elaborate workflow that specifies at least four opportunities for unsuitable papers to be rejected. Yet a paper so ridiculous as to paste the letter ‘T’ on graphs to make them look like error plots sailed through and was accepted for publication.

Two inferences: 1) The paper didn’t encounter a single honest reviewer on its way to publication. It’s also probable that it landed on the desk of a reviewer who could have been sympathetic – to anything from the paper’s authors (because they were friends?) to an aspiration by the institute or the relevant community to increase its publication count. 2) Journals exist that wish to appear respectable but aren’t careful about meeting the requisite expectations fundamentally because they don’t care about that stuff. Many such journals complicate the desire to draw a definitive line between the visible symptoms of a legitimate journal and a journal that will publish any paper for money. Their habits are brought to light only when they publish a paper that catches the public attention; until then, they operate quietly in the background.

For these reasons, it’s useful to not think of the scientific literature as a large, monolithic chunk of knowledge. It’s more like a river with some water coming in, some water going out, with some stretches polluted and others clean. Similarly, the literature is fragmented by dishonest journals, practices that enhance their prestige at the cost of the quality of published results, habits like ambulance-chasing and inflation bias, activities like paper mills, etc.