Four private scientists without any agenda whatsoever published a research result preprint on the portal BioRxiv. The “new results” reported in the article are actually new ideas which are just as good as any research results, because they are supposed to bring the field of scholarly communication forward. The question is, where to, and why should anyone go there. Because the idea is to abolish the only tool science now has at hand to punish research misconduct: retractions. Fraudulent papers are to receive instead an amendment, which will notify those particularly inclined readers that research data or ethics approval (for clinical studies) might have been falsified or missing. Those proposing to remove the only punitive measure available in scholarly publishing are in fact the very people who are supposed to be overseeing the editorial integrity. The goats whom science welcomed as gardeners now dropped the pretence and declared their true vision for the garden.

The preprint is titled “Amending Published Articles: Time To Rethink Retractions And Corrections?” and is authored by Virginia Barbour (1), Theodora Bloom (2), Jennifer Lin (3) and Elizabeth Moylan (4), their respective affiliations are: 1 Queensland University of Technology (QUT); 2 BMA House; 3 the Digital Object Identifier Registration Agency  Crossref and 4 the publishing house BioMed Central (BMC), which is part of Springer Nature. Only a footnote said that Barbour’s main work is not in her academic capacity with QUT, but as the Chair of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), a publisher-financed advisory board on editorial processes (see my earlier report here). The publisher executive Moylan is in fact also since last year a Council member at COPE. Bloom’s day-job is that of Executive Editor with the medical journal The BMJ, the journal which co-founded COPE in 1997.

However, Bloom declared to me in an email:

“As indicated prominently on the preprint, the views expressed are those of the authors and not our organisations”.

Of course they are. As Bloom pointed out, there is even a note: this document does not necessarily represent the views of the organizations listed here”. Why would Bloom, COPE president Barbour, or the BMC research integrity official Moylan let their private views on how publishing should deal with misconduct influence their professional day-to-day work, which just coincidentally is mostly about decisions on research integrity and editorial ethics? Such supposition is just plain silly. That the preprint constantly refers to COPE, is just a coincidence. 2017-03-29 10-00-44
Down with retractions! New hard-science preprint by Barbour et al. 

This is what the COPE president Barbour et al have on offer in their preprint:

“We propose removing the term retraction altogether and instead using the term “amendment” to describe all forms of post-publication change to an articles. The term “amendment” carries a neutral tone and is generic enough to apply to a wide array of cases, including the smallest instances such as a typographical error all the way to large retractions. By employing a uniform term, we hope to remove any associated stigma in the context of scholarly literature. When readers encounter each amendment, they read the notice for details on each case, and can judge the article and its revisions as appropriate”.

This above might as well have been written by the notorious cheater scientists Olivier Voinnet or Paolo Macchiarini, who were so far quite successful to avoid a number of retractions. Voinnet succeeded to keep his record down to 8 retractions so far (see here), by issuing almost 20 shady corrections where he replaced manipulated data with something new and often just as fishy, in a process I like to call ”Voinnetting”. Especially Macchiarini was relatively in luck regarding retractions (recent case here), since his main papers in the journal The Lancet are still standing, despite obvious lies about ethics permits and the patient’s true state in them. This is because the Editor-in-Chief (EiC) of The Lancet, Richard Horton has a strong personal antipathy to the concept of retractions as such (e.g., it took him 11 years to retract the toxic and infamous Wakefield paper on alleged dangers of vaccines, see my report here). Fun fact is: Horton is one of the founding fathers of COPE of 1997. So there is indeed a big customer interest to avoid retraction, certainly among the many cheater scientists, but also among the journal editors who just want to avoid the hustle.

Retractions namely are a pain in the neck. Especially with the rise of the internet portal PubPeer, editors are now inundated with suspicions of data manipulations. Dealing with all this is cumbersome; many journals do nothing at all until someone contacts them in person with evidence. Even then, anonymous complaints are sometimes disregarded straight away. To investigate the misconduct evidence further, journals must invest lots of time and money, when they often can spare neither. Thus, many journals simply sit tight and wait for the results of institutional investigations, if those ever take place. But even when an institution demands a retraction after having investigated and found misconduct, journals still haggle with authors for many months on end and sometimes even drop the issue altogether if the authors oppose the retraction too much.

In fact, some authors even threaten to sue the publisher if a retraction is threatened. The western-blot-breeding specialist Mario Saad did this, but he meanwhile lost a number of manipulated papers to retractions. Some journals operate the policy of never retracting anything unless all authors agree. The EiC of the journal Human Molecular Genetics refused to do anything at all about a manipulated paper despite the retraction request of the corresponding author Philippe Froguel, because the other corresponding author and the obviously guilty party, Kathrin Maedler, did not agree to the retraction (see my report here). Other journals are apparently staff-overstretched, clueless or simply can’t be bothered dealing with their authors’ misconduct. The best example of the latter is the COPE-member Cell: to its EiC Emilie Marcus, data manipulation or absence of original data is no reason at all to retract a “cool” paper, as she recently demonstrated for both Voinnet and Maria Pia Cosma (see this report).  Retraction is a total measure; a retracted paper cannot be cited or referenced anymore. There is no such thing as a partial retraction, though EMBO Press did establish such a weird concept, with the result that they simply applied it to save the most disreputable papers by Cosma from a proper retraction (see this report).

Bottom-line: too many journal editors would sure prefer to hang on some amendment note to a paper and be done with it.

Liz Wager, former COPE chair, who “offered some comments” during the preprint’s writing, explained in the comment section of the preprint:

“I can see many benefits from separating the process of investigating misconduct and alerting readers to unreliable work. However, one important recommendation of this new proposal is that “If misconduct or fraud has occurred, this should be reported on, but such reporting should be considered as distinct from the process of correcting the literature.” But we know that universities in many countries are often unwilling to share information about misconduct investigations, so I hope the authors will provide some more detail (and research institutions will also comment on) how this might work in practice”.

However, the authors who actually invited readers to comment on their preprint, chose not to engage in a critical discussion, but only respond to praise from other publishing executives, as Barbour did here.

I approached Bloom, who then wrote back to me:

“We also try to say emphatically that misconduct needs to be investigated and reported. Our concern is simply that waiting for a full investigation before providing any formalised correction of the literature means that there are long periods when some people know that there are clear problems with an article but most readers do not. Once investigations are complete we would absolutely want that linked to the article, but it is frequently the case that this would be many years after the problems with a paper are identified”.

I then asked Bloom straightforward if the idea was to abolish retractions altogether and replace them with amendments. I received this reply:

“In our view, there is a need to quickly and unmistakably flag papers that are problematic, inaccurate or erroneous. That need is not well met by the current system that requires a full investigation to be completed, behind closed doors, and the full reasons behind any problems determined, before a retraction notice is issued. In our view, in such circumstances it makes more sense to quickly flag the issue – even while people are disagreeing about what might have caused it – and subsequently to add a narrative about the causes. This separates the two aspects – correcting the literature on the one hand, and investigating misconduct on the other – both in time and in terminology. (I wrote something that reflects my own thinking about this issue a few years ago, at”.

However, in their provocative preprint Bloom and her co-authors do not propose to flag papers until retraction is sufficiently justified (and conveniently forget that such tool already exists, aptly named Editorial Expression of Concern). They propose to abolish retractions altogether. In the very worst cases, where fraud or patient abuse are officially established, and even the authors gave up defending their opus, the preprint’s authors advice preservation of the paper in full, but decorated with explanatory amendments:

“Wholesale or complete: the article as a whole is considered unreliable in its current form. There may be elements that remain “correct” but large proportions are not. Instead of “retract and replace” as currently practiced by some publishers, we would recommend “retract and republish” with a new DOI that lands on the newer version and makes plain the chain of events. In the case where authors and/or journal may wish to dissociate themselves from it completely, this is fully noted with a full description in the associated narrative and no attempt to insert new text or other content”.

The publisher executives insidiously use as a smokescreen the good and honourable concept of a “living” paper, as opposed to the traditional “static” printed version. There, the authors can add in time their new data or new discussion through amendments, or versioning, to their already published papers. A great idea, and certainly worth pursuing. But it should not be polluted with Voinnetting. Authors caught with manipulated or absent research data should under no circumstances be invited to replace it with something else, through an amendment. If a doctor who lied about ethics approvals or the outcome of the published medical intervention is permitted to “fix” all this with an amendment, actual human lives of real patients are at stake.

piggy bank

Thus, if COPE and the publishers it represent get their will, there will be no retractions in the future. The most outrageously fake papers will get a cautionary amendment, but can still be quoted, referenced, and used for funding and job applications. Barbour and her COPE colleagues sure understand the implications of their proposal to pull the teeth of all research integrity watchdogs. Should we nod in agreement, lulled by the big talk of a “living” paper? Whose ally is COPE anyway? Their guidelines on editorial integrity (which are already full of loopholes) are in fact not worth the paper they are printed on. When called for advice, COPE showed that they are incapable of advising retraction even in clear cases of self-plagiarism (e.g., see here) or even plagiarism (personal communication with a reader). No real revolution can be imposed from above, and the simple fact is: COPE represents the interests of the scholarly publishing industry. Not those of honest scientists.

12 thoughts on “COPE, the publishers’ Trojan horse, calls to abolish retractions

  1. “If misconduct or fraud has occurred, this should be reported on, but such reporting should be considered as distinct from the process of correcting the literature.” Why? So that the need for correction becomes as invisible as possible to readers of that literature.

    These people and their opinions have become irrelevant. They’re flailing for the control that they’ve irretrievably and deservedly lost.


  2. Amendment to the article, “One plus One equals Three”.

    The authors have re-evaluated the complex algorithm employed in the study and have concluded that one plus one plus one equals three. The authors do not feel that the fundamental finding of the study is flawed. One plus one equals two, which is not a significant difference from three and thereby underpins the core findings. The authors apologize for this slight error in calculation and have all agreed to this Amendment.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Now my ideas:
    As I mentioned before I think peer review should be public and reviewers should have access to original data


  4. Seems to me that by eliminating retractions and encouraging amendments to what should be already completed and vetted work, we simply perpetuate the problematic public or perish academic model. The benefits go to those who publish higher quantity, shoddy, possibly fraudulent work, and then – as the authors of the pre-print who have no possible conflict-of-interest propose – said researchers even get amply opportunity to fix or retroactively alter their work if flaws are noticed (which they rarely are – or were). This academic model continually rewards quantity over quality (quality is rarely even assessed) and tends to reward all the wrong people; ineptitude, misconduct. and outright fraud tend to be overlooked for sheer numbers of publications. Meanwhile, of course the publishers wish to maintain the system that benefits themselves most:
    “t is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!” —Upton Sinclair (A line that cannot be quoted enough)


    1. I agree with K: what is extensively wrong should be retracted
      Also definitely we have to put an end in the actual system: “publish or perish “, so I think peer review and raw data should be available to public, reviewers and editors should become auditors and journals auditory enterprises in future therefore editors become paid to perfectly understand everything


  5. It seems to me that one of the authors of this preprint will give a presentation about (parts from) this preprint at the 5th World Conference on Research Integrity in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, on 29 May 2017.

    Copy/pasted from

    “Abstract title. How could editors think differently about the complexities of research and publishing ethics? Author V. Barbour (Norfolk, United Kingdom) (Presenting author)”

    “Abstract text. (….) current methods of correcting published work are not now sufficient for the changing norms of publishing” (…) The previous framework of submission, review and publishing of a final version which remains unchanged post publication, all conduced solely within limited academic circles, is now at an end.”


  6. I have conducted a review of this preprint and I present my findings in this comment. I have send my findings to TB and JL on 19 April 2017. An e-mail with additional details was send to them on 26 April 2017. There was until now no response. There was until now also no response on my proposal in the e-mail of 26 April 2017 to post my findings at It seems therefore reasonable to assume that the authors have no objections against the posting of this comment.

    BioRxiv is a preprint server for ‘articles covering all aspects of research in the life sciences’. BioRxiv accepts ‘preprints, which are complete but unpublished research articles’. BioRxiv states: ‘research articles reporting new, confirmatory, or contradictory findings may be posted.’ This preprint is thus a research article. It is posted in the category ‘New Results’. My review reveals that this preprint does not contain new results and that it does not fall within the category ‘original research article’. This point of view is in line with a recent comment of the physicist professor Parthasarathy (‘That essay is not, nor does it claim to be, a research paper.’). A comment at Twitter by Dr Teytelman, dated 4 May 2017, reveals that BioRxiv had rejected (“Our preprint was rejected by biorxivpreprint b/c it’s a tool, not original research. Went to Peerj”). It is thus not excluded that researchers are wondering why BioRxiv accepted this preprint and rejected ‘VERVENet: The Viral Ecology Research and Virtual Exchange Network’ (the preprint of Dr. Teytelman et al.).
    This preprint is an extremely rare case of a research article where authors use the ‘argument from authority’ to support their views/statements/proposals. Copy/pasted from the last paragraph of the Introduction (page 2): “Many people are discussing changes in publishing. We bring to this our diverse and collective experience of a number of traditional and start-up publishers as well as of developing infrastructures for open access and other publishing innovations.” The preprint contains no opposing views, and with solid references, on major topics which are discussed in this preprint. It can thus be concluded that we are dealing here with an ‘argumentum ad verecundiam’. The appendix is some sort of promotional text of the employer of author JL. This underlines that this preprint is a policy document of (some of) the affiliations of the authors.
    The scientific level of this preprint is extremely low. The main issues are: (i) (almost) no definitions for a whole array of terms, (ii) loaded with biased opinions which are almost never supported by solid references (which for example implies that the scientific level of the Introduction is more or less equal to nil), (iii) references which are disorganized, sloppy, and incomplete. Commenting took so much time that several parts of the text, in particular sections in the middle of the text, have not been reviewed. All remarks are listed in a WORD document. Please don’t hesitate to contact me when you would like to have a copy of this WORD document.
    Readers will wonder why the 4 authors have, more or less as a private person, published a preprint about a topic which is directly related to their professional activities (‘this document does not necessarily represent the views of the organizations listed here’, page 1). So for example TB, the executive editor of The BMJ since June 2014, is trying to convince the readers that she has published this preprint more or less as a private person, and that we thus must more or less ignore that TB has listed BMJ as affiliation behind her name. Excuse me very much, but that’s not how is works in life sciences (and in other fields of research) when you publish a research article (as preprint at BioRxiv). So TB will have to make a choice: (1) upload a new version without her name as author, or (2) ensure that BMJ et al. approves the contents of (a new version) the preprint, and upload a new version in which it is stated that the contents of this preprint has been approved by BMJ et al.
    This preprint has multiple issues in regard to undeclared conflicts of interest (see also item 4). Is ‘COPE working group’ (page 1) also some sort of author? How about people other than the authors who are member of this ‘COPE working group’? Which people are member of this ‘COPE working group’? Who is responsible for the acting / behaviour / activities / output of this ‘COPE working group’? Is the ‘initial working group’ (page 12) identical to this ‘COPE working group’? It is not indicated that VB is also affiliated to the UQ (the University of Queensland), to GU and to AOASG It is unclear why VB and TB have declared that they ‘are both on the Eighth International Congress on Peer Review and Scientific Publication Advisory Board’ (page 12). Does this imply that (parts of) the contents of this preprint will be presented at this Congress? The readers have no idea. EM, the guarantor and the corresponding author of has not declared that her ICMJE form of this recent paper in BMJ Open is unavailable (for me). This unavailability (for me) is a clear violation of the submission guidelines for manuscripts to BMJ Open. VB has not declared that UQ is investigating for already over one year a formal complaint against her with serious allegations of ‘wilful concealment or facilitation of research misconduct by others’. VB is not disclosing that she is member of the ‘Ethics and Policy Committee’ of WAME. More remarks are listed in the WORD document (see above).
    All authors have a PhD in the life sciences from (very) well respected universities and all claim ‘argument from authority’ in this field of research (see above). The extreme low scientific level of this preprint is therefore remarkable. This low level is obvious after a comparison with the preprint of Dr. Teytelman et al. (see above) and after a comparison with other preprints in the subject area ‘Scientific Communication and Education’, e.g. , a preprint with one author who is a PhD student. The review history of the recent paper in BMJ Open of author EM (see above) reveals on the other hand more or less similar issues with the scientific level (‘this paper reads like an advertisement for BioMed Central’, reviewer R. Grant Steen, ‘As the field stands by now, it makes little sense to just count retractions and report simple descriptive statistics whilst ignoring the element of journal policies’, reviewer Daniele Fanelli).

    It can thus be concluded:
    * the preprint server BioRxiv accepts research articles with a very low scientific level;
    * policy documents (about publication ethics) can be published as ‘research article’ at the preprint server BioRxiv.


  7. It has turned out that BioRxiv has added a sentence to the text of “What types of content can be posted on bioRxiv?” at

    The added sentence is: “In the Scientific Communication and Education subject category, research articles and white papers on professional standards and best practices may be posted.”

    This added sentence was not yet present at on 23 April 2017. This added sentence was present at this url on 20 May 2017. It is at the moment unknown at what date this sentence has been added and it is at the moment also unknown if the discussions about this preprint have caused this change / amendment.


  8. The authors of this preprint have published on 5 June 2017 at some backgrounds about their proposals they reflect on some reactions. They do not refer to this blogpost at when reflecting on these reactions.

    The authors state in their blogpost of 5 June 2017: “More practically, we know that editors often never fully know what the cause of a retraction was as they do not conduct investigations themselves (this is the responsibility of the institutions) (…)”.

    I am not aware of peer-reviewed references in journals (excluding journals which are on the lists of Jeffrey Beall), and/or peer-reviewed references in books, in which it is stated that ‘editors [journals] do not conduct investigations themselves’ and in which it is stated ‘conduct[ing] investigations (..) is the responsibility of the institutions’. I propose that the authors post over here a comment with a list with at least 3 of such references.

    There are numerous postings at Retraction Watch with opposing statements about this responsibilities. I therefore hold the opinion that the claim of the 4 authors (and also more or less of their affilations, and/or of this ‘COPE working group’?) in regard to this item is unsubstantiated as long as they have not provided readers with these references.

    Recent examples of such postings include [“The editor-in-chief of TPJ Christoph Benning said that, after the authors contacted them, the journals looked into the issue, confirmed the duplications and then retracted the papers:”The authors contacted TPJ and TPC at about the same time. TPJ and TPC launched independent investigations into the matter that led to the findings described in the two retraction notices. TPJ and TPC communicated about their findings prior to publishing their respective retractions and coordinated the timing of the publication of the retractions.””.] and [“Kaoru Sakabe, the Data Integrity Manager at the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, which publishes the JBC, told us: “A reader alerted us to possible issues. As is customary, we investigated the articles, the details of which may be found in the withdrawal notices.””].


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