Folks have long noted the strong positive correlation between high impact factor and retraction rate. There are three primary theories I’ve run across that attempt explain why Nature, Science, Cell, etc. have substantially higher retraction rates than other journals:
1) Acceptable risk/fame and glory theory: High impact factor journals are willing to publish riskier, but potentially higher-impact claims ASAP – more retractions are the price for getting high-impact science out early. The more negative version of this theory is that high impact factor journals care more about a high impact factor than about the integrity of what they publish.
2) Heightened scrutiny theory: papers published in high visibility journals get more scrutiny and thus flaws/fraud are more likely to be detected, but fraud/errors happen roughly equally everywhere. An associated theory is the high-stakes fraud theory: if you’re going to commit fraud, you need to make the payoff worth the risk, so you’re going to submit to Nature and not BBA.
Anthony Bretscher, in an MBoC commentary on editors, proposes a new theory, which, based on personal experience, I believe accounts for most of the correlation between retraction rate and high impact factor journals:
3) The overwhelmed professional editor theory:
Indeed, there is a good correlation between the impact factor of a journal and the frequency of retractions (Fang and Casadevall, 2011). I attribute this to the ever-increasing demands on the professional editor. Do not misunderstand me—professional editors are very talented and hardworking individuals, but they handle such a broad range of manuscripts that they may not have the intimate knowledge necessary to consistently make good decisions on the importance of every study, and especially on selecting the most appropriate reviewers.
Bretscher argues that as a result, professional editors have made the publishing process much more haphazard.
The selection of inappropriate reviewers seems to me to be a major problem in the biomedical sciences, because so much work is now a big interdisciplinary mush, particularly in genomics. As the ENCODE blow-up and the Graur, et al. response demonstrate, it can be difficult to figure out when something is genuinely unsettled, whose views should be considered authoritative, and whose views are simply mistaken.