The frequency of retracted papers seems to be increasing "dramatically," says In the Pipeline's Derek Lowe. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article based on data from Thomson Reuters, the number of papers published has risen 44 percent since 2001, while the retraction rate has risen 15-fold. "Just 22 retraction notices appeared in 2001, but 139 in 2006 and 339 last year. Through seven months of this year, there have been 210, according to Thomson Reuters Web of Science," the Wall Street Journal writes. So what gives? There are a lot of junk journals out there days, but it's not just these "bottom-tier journals" that are driving the retraction trend, Lowe says. In fact, a chart of PubMed retractions shows many of them are from top journals. Recent data has shown that retractions due to fraud account for most of the take-backs, Lowe says. "Software has definitely made the lazier sorts of fraud easier to detect, automatically flagging copy-and-paste hack jobs," he adds. And there may also be a mix of more fraud and a greater skepticism among readers that makes them question really surprising results more than they may have in the past. "That's not a bad thing. The rise in fraud is a bad thing, but a corresponding rise in scrutiny is the only thing that's going to cure it," Lowe says. "There are always a few pathological types out there that kind of know that they're going to get caught and kind of don't care. Those we shall always have with us, and not much is going to discourage them. But as for the rest of the fraudsters, the thought that they have a better chance of being found out and punished should give them something to think about."
At Retraction Watch, Ivan Oransky asks whether it's time for the scientific community to start a "retraction index." A paper published this week in Infection and Immunity shows simple calculations for a retraction index — the authors took the number of retractions in a journal from 2001 to 2010, multiplied by 1,000, and divided by the number of published articles with abstracts. They then plotted the retraction index against the impact factor and found "a surprisingly robust correlation between the journal retraction index and its impact factor," Oransky says. "Although correlation does not imply causality, this preliminary investigation suggests that the probability that an article published in a higher journal will be retracted is higher than that of an article published in a lower impact journal." There are different explanations, the authors write. The pressure to make results fit into a neat narrative, for example. So if journals "are eager to trumpet their high impact factor," Oransky asks, "shouldn’t they also be willing, in the name of transparency, to let the world know how frequently papers are retracted?"