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Comments and Corrigenda in Scientific Literature

How self-correcting is the written record of scientific and engineering endeavors?

Joseph Grcar

Enough Correction?

The main issue is whether the present rate of correction is adequate. This question fundamentally concerns the social traditions of editorial boards and research communities because correction rates vary considerably across subject areas (see the bottom graph on the previous page). In general, the overall rates of corrections are lowest in engineering (0.5 to 1.0 percent of journal articles), somewhat higher in the sciences (1.0–1.5 percent), and highest in health and social sciences and liberal arts (1.5–2.0 percent). Multidisciplinary journals are outliers on the high end with correction rates over 3.0 percent.

The positive impact of editorial policies may be seen in the uniformly high rates of self-correction in subject areas connected to biomedicine (seven areas with 1 percent corrigenda and errata). These fields have the most experience in formulating discipline-wide correction policies. The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors suggests procedures for making each type of correction, and the corrections are consistently indexed by the U.S. National Library of Medicine through the PubMed portal to the MEDLINE database. These policies emphasize that “the editor’s concern should be correcting the literature so the readership can rely on the information published.” Knowledge that journals will routinely publish commentary and corrections may encourage authors to be diligent in correcting their own mistakes lest they be corrected by others.

The view that correction is a normal aspect of scientific publishing may also be a factor in the very high correction rates of multidisciplinary journals. Such journals have traditions of fostering scientific communities through editorials, reviews and sections devoted to commentary from readers. For example, Nature has a correction rate of 5 percent achieved through explicit editorial policies for different types of corrections (addenda, corrigenda, errata, retractions and refutations).

The low rate of correction in engineering literature may be abetted by the manner of publication. Many articles for the engineering sciences appear in conference proceedings (see the bottom graph on the previous page). These articles do undergo peer review, and some of the venues are highly selective. Because the proceedings appear infrequently, they do not include corrigenda or reader comments pertaining to the previous conference. The inability to publish corrections for a large part of the literature may contribute to a low rate of reporting errors for articles that do appear in journals.

In summary, the scientific literature is self-correcting though corrigenda and though reader comments. Corrections of various kinds appear at the rate of one to two per hundred journal articles, compared to which the rate of forced retractions is negligible. The rates of correction vary widely across subject areas and journals. Biomedical fields have the highest rates of self-correction while multidisciplinary journals have by far the highest correction rates and include some of the most widely read publications, which should remove any perceived stigma associated with questioning results and reporting errors. Other editorial boards should be encouraged to emulate these journals by establishing sections for reader commentary and policies for publishing corrections so as to encourage a tradition of vigorous scientific debate and self-correction.

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