Objective: To study journals' responses to a request from the State Medical Association of Rheinland-Pfalz, Germany, to retract 88 articles due to ethical concerns, and to check whether the resulting retractions followed published guidelines.
Design: Descriptive cross-sectional study.
Population: 88 articles (18 journals) by the anaesthesiologist Dr. Boldt, that warranted retraction.
Method: According to the recommendations of the Committee on Publication Ethics, we regarded a retraction as adequate when a retraction notice was published, linked to the retracted article, identified the title and authors of the retracted article in its heading, explained the reason and who took responsibility for the retraction, and when the retracted article was freely accessible and marked using a transparent watermark that preserved original content. Two authors extracted data independently (January 2013) and contacted editors-in-chief and publishers for clarification in cases of inadequate retraction.
Results: Five articles (6%) fulfilled all criteria for adequate retraction. Nine (10%) were not retracted (no retraction notice published, full text article not marked). 79 (90%) retraction notices were published, 76 (86%) were freely accessible, but only 15 (17%) were complete. 73 (83%) full text articles were marked as retracted, of which 14 (16%) had an opaque watermark hiding parts of the original content, and 11 (13%) had all original content deleted. 59 (67%) retracted articles were freely accessible. One editor-in-chief stated personal problems as a reason for incomplete retractions, eight blamed their publishers. Two publishers cited legal threats from Dr. Boldt's co-authors which prevented them from retracting articles.
Conclusion: Guidelines for retracting articles are incompletely followed. The role of publishers in the retraction process needs to be clarified and standards are needed on marking retracted articles. It remains unclear who should check that retractions are done properly. Legal safeguards are required to allow retraction of articles against the wishes of authors.