Background: The number of retracted scholarly articles has risen precipitously in recent years. Past surveys of the retracted literature each limited their scope to articles in PubMed, though many retracted articles are not indexed in PubMed. To understand the scope and characteristics of retracted articles across the full spectrum of scholarly disciplines, we surveyed 42 of the largest bibliographic databases for major scholarly fields and publisher websites to identify retracted articles. This study examines various trends among them.
Results: We found, 4,449 scholarly publications retracted from 1928-2011. Unlike Math, Physics, Engineering and Social Sciences, the percentages of retractions in Medicine, Life Science and Chemistry exceeded their percentages among Web of Science (WoS) records. Retractions due to alleged publishing misconduct (47%) outnumbered those due to alleged research misconduct (20%) or questionable data/interpretations (42%). This total exceeds 100% since multiple justifications were listed in some retraction notices. Retraction/WoS record ratios vary among author affiliation countries. Though widespread, only miniscule percentages of publications for individual years, countries, journals, or disciplines have been retracted. Fifteen prolific individuals accounted for more than half of all retractions due to alleged research misconduct, and strongly influenced all retraction characteristics. The number of articles retracted per year increased by a factor of 19.06 from 2001 to 2010, though excluding repeat offenders and adjusting for growth of the published literature decreases it to a factor of 11.36.
Conclusions: Retracted articles occur across the full spectrum of scholarly disciplines. Most retracted articles do not contain flawed data; and the authors of most retracted articles have not been accused of research misconduct. Despite recent increases, the proportion of published scholarly literature affected by retraction remains very small. Articles and editorials discussing retractions, or their relation to research integrity, should always consider individual cases in these broad contexts. However, better mechanisms are still needed for raising researchers' awareness of the retracted literature in their field.