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Candid Corrections and Responsible Retractions: Lessons Learned from COPE 2012

Several PLoS staff attended the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) European Seminar 2012 in London on Friday 16th March. Not only was the theme of the day “Correcting the Literature”, something which usually turns a good publishing day to bad, but the refrain was of retractions.  The programme was filled with several presentations around the theme of corrections, retractions and article versioning. Some of the attendees have commented on what caught their attention.

Retractions and misconduct: Lessons from Science

Rachel Jarmy, Publications Assistant, PLoS Biology

The first presentation of the day was from Deputy Editor and International Managing Editor of Science, Dr Andrew Sugden, who began with the reassuring reminder that most retractions are ‘good’, in that the authors voluntarily report an honest error to the journal, and co-operate fully to rectify the issue.

However, it is the ‘bad’ and ‘ugly’ cases of misconduct, authors refusing to co-operate, institutional investigations and mass retractions across multiple journals that have led to Science reassessing some of their policies.  As a direct result of famous cases such as Hwang in 2004 and2005, the journal has implemented new protocols, such as all authors confirming their authorship on a paper and all figures being checked for manipulation, with the aim of stunting the growth of retractions.

Dr Sugden also highlighted the difficulties faced by editors, such as large multi-author manuscripts from many labs and countries with potential language barriers, and the intense media scrutiny that can surround corrections to the literature.

The presentation closed by voicing a need for an analysis of the pressures that cause misconduct and significant error amongst authors, as well as a balance between observation and accusation.

CrossMark: There is no final version

Cecy Marden, Publications Manager (Sponsored Supplements and Collections), PLoS Medicine

CrossRef are adding to their arsenal of tools for scholarly research and publication with the introduction of CrossMark. Ed Pentz, the Executive Director of CrossRef, made the case that as much as publishers like to think that a published article is fixed in time forever, in fact articles are frequently enhanced, updated, corrected and even occasionally retracted. CrossMark is proposed as a way for readers to easily identify that they are reading a publisher-maintained version of an article, and for publishers themselves to consistently and publicly record any changes that are made to an article post-publication, by adding the CrossMark logo and version information to their content.

It seemed to me that the biggest hurdle CrossMark faces is the requirement for readers to click on the logo in order to see whether an article has been altered. Whilst publishers vary in how they flag up corrections, the word “correction” is usually visible, no clicks required, on the html version of the article. The CrossMark logo will be unchanging so to reach version information you must click, but will readers take that step? Perhaps more usefully, CrossMark will allow PDF users to click on its logo months after download to receive confirmation of whether or not a correction has been made to the article, which is something publishers currently have no means of doing. Even so, I remain most excited about the freely available and searchable dataset which will be part of CrossMark, and its associated possibilities. For example, other services like Mendeley and CiteULike could work with CrossMark to ensure their users’ reference lists were kept updated, or readers could sign up to be notified if a particular article they were using was modified.

There’s no arguing against the importance of ensuring that changes made to an article are consistently available to readers, and it’s great to see CrossRef stepping into that space, but it felt like perhaps CrossMark’s logo isn’t quite big enough to fill it – yet.

You can view the slides, or even a pre-recorded webinar, at

Legal issues in corrections and retractions

Rosemary Dickin, Publications Manager, PLoS Computational Biology

Joss Saunders, from Blake Lapthorn Solicitors, gave an engaging introduction to “Legal issues in corrections and retractions”. As online publishers, we operate under a particularly broad definition of “publication” and Joss provided some useful tips on navigating the legal jungle this can create. Wherever they are based geographically, online publishers actually publish internationally via the internet, and may be answerable to the legal codes of other countries. Publication also occurs with each fresh download, so publishers must be committed to ensuring that corrections and amendments are applied as broadly as possible and are visible to future readers. Given the cultural divides separating the legal codes of different nations, even the simplest of topics can quickly become very complex – for example, “moral rights” (such as the right to be identified as an author), which exist on a scale from highly important to near non-existent and everything in between.

While juggling the legal and ethical considerations of implementing corrections and retractions can be a tricky business, some general principles did emerge: stating only facts, not opinions; making sure all authors are aware of manuscript submission and changes; keeping sensitive information on a “need to know basis”; and acting swiftly, but wisely, when any problems arise.

Breakout Sessions

Paul Simpson, Associate Editor, PLoS Medicine

I found that one of the most useful and interesting parts of the day was the workshop breakout sessions. This gave participants the chance to discuss case studies that have previously been presented at COPE meetings. It was fascinating to hear different perspectives from editors working for journals publishing across diverse scientific specialties. It is was valuable to learn from other people’s experiences without having to go through the difficult process yourself; I was surprised how often I wasn’t sure how best to deal with the situations that were presented and how discordant the group in which I participated were when it came to deciding what to do.

COPE publishes previous case reports on their website and they can make a fascinating read. In addition to the case reports the COPE website contains best practice guidelines and flow charts to help editors cope (excuse the pun) with sticky situations so you don’t have to have attended a meeting to benefit from COPE’s advice. The website also hosts an eLearning course for COPE members.

Did you attend COPE European Seminar 2012? Leave a comment and tell us what caught your ear.

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