why is it bad to retract non-fraudulent and non-erroneous papers?

It is bad to demand the retraction non-fraudulent papers. But why? I think the argument rests on three intuitions. First, there is a legal reason. When an editor and publisher accept a paper, they enter into a legal contract. The authors produces the paper and the publisher agrees to publish. To rescind publication of a paper is to break a contract, except in cases of fraud. The other exception is error in analysis that invalidates the paper’s claim (e.g., a math paper that has a non-correctable flaw in a proof or mis-coded data whose corrections leads to an entirely new conclusion – even then, maybe the paper should just be rewritten).

Second, there is a pragmatic reason. When you cater to retraction demands, outside of fraud and extreme error, you then undermine the role of the editor. Basically, an editor is given the position of choosing papers for an audience. They are not obligated to accept or reject any papers except those they deem interesting or of high quality. And contrary to popular belief, they do not have to accept papers that receive good reviews nor must they reject papers that receive bad reviews. Peer review is merely advisory, not a binding voting mechanism, unless the editor decides to simply let the majority rule. Thus, if editors ceded authority of publishing to the “masses,” they would simply stop being editors and more like advertisers, who cater to the whims of the public.

Third, I think it is unscholarly. Retraction is literally suppression of speech and professors should demand debate. We are supposed to be the guardians of reason, not the people leading the charge for censorship.

So what should you do if you find that a journal publishes bad, insulting or inflammatory material? Don’t ask for a retraction. There are many proper responses. Readers can simply boycott the journal, by not reading it or citing it. Or they can ask a library to stop paying for it. Peers can agree to stop reviewing for it or to dissociate themselves from the journal. A publisher can review the material and then decide to not renew an editor’s contract. Or if the material is consistently bad, they can fire the editor.

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Written by fabiorojas

September 21, 2017 at 4:01 am

7 Responses

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  1. Another response: write an essay (TCFC was published as a viewpoint) in rebuttal and/or organize a special issue or conference on the topic as a rebuttal.


    A. nonymous

    September 21, 2017 at 5:16 am

  2. […] via why is it bad to retract non-fraudulent and non-erroneous papers? — […]


  3. I assume this post is ignoring the phenomenon of the author retraction, in which an author published a paper in good faith, believing it was correct, and then discovered an error.

    I see that you are not against the retraction of papers that have been demonstrated to have been fraudulent, whether by the author or the journal.

    Liked by 1 person


    September 21, 2017 at 4:05 pm

  4. o.w.: Thank you for the comment.

    1. I wasn’t focusing on who demands the retraction, but I think an author demanded retraction constitutes an example of retraction due to error.

    2. Fraud (as normally understood – lying or faking data) is totally grounds for retraction, by authors or editors.

    Liked by 1 person


    September 21, 2017 at 5:14 pm

  5. A. nonymous: Yes, I suggested that in yesterday’s post, which includes my own rebuttal of the argument.



    September 21, 2017 at 6:08 pm

  6. Fabio:

    I’m on record as saying that retraction is not much of a solution to anything given that it’s performed so rarely.

    So I agree with you, I guess, and I’d probably go further and say that we can’t realistically expect papers that are fraudulent or fatally erroneous. Again, the problem is that there are so many papers that are fraudulent or fatally erroneous, that most of them aren’t gonna get retracted anyway.

    We have to get away from the whole idea that, just cos a paper is published in a serious journal (even a top journal), that it’s correct or even reasonable. Top journals regularly publish crap. They publish good stuff too, but they also publish a lot of crap. And, to the extent that retraction is a way to “protect the brand,” I’m against it.

    That said, I disagree with one of your statements, which is that retraction is “suppression of speech.” Even setting aside the question of whether published articles are “speech,” I disagree with your claim of “suppression.” A retraction, if done right, will preserve the original article but watermark it and put the retraction at the same place. It’s not suppression of the original article, it’s an addition to the original article.

    And I say this as someone who’s had to publish 4 correction notices for published articles of mine that had errors.


    Andrew Gelman

    October 2, 2017 at 3:01 am

  7. […] In our recent discussion about retraction, Andrew Gelman wrote the following: […]


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