An English-written paper titled “Treatise upon Electricity” was the first to be retracted in 1755 when Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London discovered errors (27). Afterwards, paper retractions were purposed as a mechanism for self-correcting the scientific papers (28, 29). However, this self-correcting purpose had been arguably questioned and dubbed a “myth” (30). We may argue that retractions may also misguide the public about scientific discovery and the scientists. Nevertheless, the total number of retracted papers has increased with time, reaching thousands in 2020. Recent advances in information technology allows the journals, their editors, or publishers to detect malpractices such as plagiarism or duplication (20, 31). From an ethical viewpoint, none, or low retraction numbers amongst a scientific community of a country may indicate ethical or responsible conduct of research. Because HCRs are beacons of the scientific knowledge in their respective fields, nations, and the world, expecting them to have no retractions is realistic.
So far as we know, we are the first to report that 27% of the retracted papers written by Iran-affiliated HCRs had duplication of text, a figure, or a table, as investigated from 2006 to 2019. These are regrettable statistics, and urgent counteraction is needed to avoid this easily preventable malpractice. Moreover, none of the papers with duplication were retracted by the authors’ request. Acting ethically and responsibly, the authors could have informed the respective journals about their errors. We conclude that lack of sufficient education on the ethics of scientific publishing could have led to such retractions.
We report that only two (3.9%) of the HCR papers were retracted due mainly to technical errors by a journal or a publisher. For example, the paper with the DOI 10.1016/j.saa.2005.04.013 was retracted by the journal, mentioning that “The Publisher regrets that this article is an accidental duplication of an article that has already been published in SAA, Volume 63, Issue 1, 1-252. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.saa.2005.02.049. The duplicate article has therefore been withdrawn.” RWD however attributed “duplication” for this retraction; this attribution is incorrect—“accidental duplication by the publisher” should have been listed as the retraction reason. Given these findings, we suggest that RWD revises their procedures, so retraction reasons are listed correctly.
The recent rise of retractions may be attributable to two reasons. 1) Since 2005, the software programs to detect duplication or plagiarism have become available and used widely. For example, in the last 10 years, the number of retracted papers with duplication has slightly increased, regardless of their attribution to HCRs. 2). The journal editors are presently more aware of, and have implemented measures to prevent, fake peer-review. Fake peer-review is a global problem for every publisher although many may decline reporting them fearing damage to their reputation. Duplication and plagiarism were reported previously, each constituting approximately 26% of the retraction notices; however, we found that 27% and 9%, respectively (32). Similarly, Fang et al. reported 14% for the duplication and 9.8% for plagiarism (19). The two groups, however, did not specifically study the retractions attributed to HCRs.
Implications for the Iranian academia:
Establishing an overarching national body is necessary to revise and change the research practices in Iran. The relatively high rates of duplications and fake peer-reviews as the most common retraction causes are a serious sign of malpractice. We suggest improved and effective educational programs on publishing ethics should be established and promoted widely to reduce the alarming rate of paper retractions.
Implications for the role of the Clarivate Analytics:
Nominating HCRs should follow additional and strict selection criteria besides the present standards, which reflect the number of attracted citations. A Korean–US HCR was banned from joining the editorial board of the Journal of Theoretical Biology because of soliciting citations to their papers. Such practices highlight that publishing ethics are not upheld, even in some of the developed countries (33). Because we found that almost one-tenth of the Iran-affiliated HCRs had retracted papers, the unethical conduct by a researcher must be considered before being nominated as an HCR. Undertaking fake peer-review, manipulating any peer-review, or duplications are sufficient reasons to rescind a researcher’s HCR title. Soliciting citations to one’s work is another malpractice that should strip the HCR status.