Retraction rate increases with impact factor – is this because of professional editors?

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.

– Anthony Bretscher, “Magazine or journal—what is the difference? The role of the monitoring editor”, Mol. Biol. Cell April 1, 2013 vol. 24 no. 7 887-889

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.

Author: Mike White

Genomes, Books, and Science Fiction

3 thoughts on “Retraction rate increases with impact factor – is this because of professional editors?”

  1. Hmmm, too much anecdote and not enough data in this suggestion for my liking. There’s also the opposite theory, which I shall call ‘The overwhelmed scientific editor theory’: those monitoring editors who are professionals have the time to follow up and go through the difficult (often years-long) process of retracting research articles; while those monitoring editors who are also scientists don’t have the time, are far more overwhelmed, and can’t follow up complaints to the same extent. Result: we see more retractions in journals with professional editors.

    (I don’t necessarily agree with this speculation – but I think it has as much going for it as Bretscher’s theory!).

    Nb: I’m a journalist at Nature, who has written about retractions and wondered what’s behind their rise. I have no connection with the process by which research manuscripts are accepted/rejected at Nature.

    1. I’ll agree with you that the overwhelmed editor theory is a speculative explanation for retraction rates – it would be nice to know what the rate of complaints vs rate of actual retractions is at various journals.

      For the record, most of my colleagues I’ve discussed this with believe the ‘heightened scrutiny’ theory for retractions, even though nearly all of them would agree with Bretscher’s idea that professional editors lack the in-depth knowledge to engage deeply with manuscripts and reviewer’s comments in the way that Bretscher suggests an editor should.

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