Retractions: what does the data say? - IndiaBioscience

In the last decade, as the number of scientific papers coming out of Indian labs has soared, so has the number of papers being retracted. We investigated data from to look at recent trends in India and found a 22-fold rise in retractions from 2006 to 2016. is an online database of retracted papers from around the globe, being maintained by Retraction Watch- a website dedicated to tracking retractions. Starting from 1992 to 2017, the database lists 545 retracted papers from India. The database itself is a work in progress, so more papers will be added in due course of time.

The Trend

The overall trend is of a clear rise in the number of retracted papers. While only 5 papers were retracted in 2006, in 2016 this number rose to 109. In 2017, 55 papers have been retracted so far. As the year ends this number may rise. Previous studies too (such as here and here) have reported a rising trend.

The reasons

Though retracted papers still form a very small percentage of total published papers, what causes worry are the reasons driving these retractions. In an ideal world retractions would happen when scientists discovered errors in their work or science progressed to newer truths. However, a closer look at the retracted papers shows that scientific misconduct such as plagiarism and/or duplication of work, as the top reasons for retraction.

545 Indian papers are listed on retraction database. Of these, more than hundred have been retracted for plagiarising text. Most papers had 3-4 reasons for retraction. The chart below shows the reasons that were responsible for retraction of at least 15 papers.

The subjects

The retracted papers come from all branches of science. 310 were from the biological sciences, which included cell and molecular biology, genetics, neuroscience, microbiology etc. It was followed by medicine(269), physical sciences(181) and environmental sciences(40) respectively.

The Geography

Of all the papers listed in the database approximately 15 percent had international collaborators, with US being the top collaborator. Among other papers, several had collaborators from different parts of the country. Highest number of authors came from Tamil Nadu, followed by Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and New Delhi.

The questions

So, why are retractions on a rise? What makes people plagiarise, in the first place? Is it ignorance, is it apathy for ethics, is it the pressure to publish or is it the misplaced confidence that ‘I can get away with it’? The reasons vary from a case to case basis. Clearly, there is an immediate need for the scientific community to engage with ethics in science in a more meaningful way. The question is, will they rise up to the occasion?

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

Thanks for raising this issue.

The continuing rise in retractions is indeed a worrying trend and probably reflects the general social trend in all walks of life where ethics is no longer a primary concern. However, it is expected that science research should be less affected by this malady. A small part would be becontributed because of ignorance about plagiarism. We need to sensitize all researchers about this. However, the major cause perhaps lies in the statutory requirements of a certain ‘minimal’ numbers of publications for thesis submission, appointment and promotion etc, will little quality control. The potential incidence of retractions would be very high if ‘predatory’ journals were also taken into account. There certainly is a need for a national policy on these issues.

Need to compare trends in India with international retraction statistics. This issue has been publicized extensively internationally, and an increase in the number of retractions may be due to attention bias rather than to an increase in criminality.

India has a much larger problem with predatory journals, many of which are clearly aimed at the Indian market. Lacking effective peer review, these can easily become thieves’ markets. One journal I occasionally follow has, in every issue I examined, at least one paper copied verbatim from a previous paper by a different author. I have seen cases of professors at lesser known Indian institutions copying papers from one obscure online journal and republishing them under their own names in other equally obscure journals. I do not refer to professors at top tier Indian universities but to those in institutions far down the chain.

Apart from the devastating impact of plagiarism on the prestige of Indian scholarship, this can have catastrophic consequences for the wrongdoers themselves if they (or their students) come to the West and continue that practice. I know one case of a physician (not from India) who tried that during a fellowship at a prestigious US university. You can imaging the consequences.

India needs to change its requirements for professors at institutions lacking significant research capabilities to reward other kinds of contributions. India also needs to address the problem of predatory journals, but I do not think it is doing an effective job. The recent list of UGC-approved journals is hardly selective. Indian professors need to educate their students about expectations for academic integrity to avoid problems that may arise later in their professional lives.

  • K. R. Foster
    University of Pennsylvania