Last week PLOS Pathogens retracted an article published in 2006 that claimed to show the identification of a new gammaretrovirus XMRV, and its association with prostate cancer. This was a high profile paper , – highly cited and widely discussed in the scientific community and beyond as it was believed to be a cornerstone of early research of the link between XMRV and a number of diseases whose etiologies were unknown or poorly understood.
Over the years since it was published, however, an increasing body of literature has cast doubt on the nature of many of these associations as well as the early link to prostate cancer. This culminated in the publication of a paper in PLOS ONE by Charles Chiu from the University of San Francisco along with collaborators, including some of the original authors , which showed conclusively that the XMRV detected was an inadvertent laboratory contaminant of the tissue samples from the original study and has no etiological relationship with prostate cancer. However, the discovery of the virus and methodologies employed in the original study remained valid.
What is the role of retractions in situations like this? There is much misunderstanding about retractions. Authors and editors have been notoriously unwilling to use them, for the perceived shame that they bring upon authors, editors, and journals. Journalists regularly note the fact that retractions are increasing and ask whether the scientific literature is thus becoming less reliable. Websites such as Retraction Watch  list and dissect retractions – an extra exposure at what is already a difficult time for authors and editors. In addition there is much confusion about how to effect retractions practically. In an effort to bring some clarity to this issue in 2009 the Committee on Publication Ethics of which PLOS Pathogens is a member and one of us (VB) is currently Chair, issued guidelines on retractions, which explicitly state that retractions are appropriate when findings are unreliable, either as a result of misconduct (e.g. data fabrication) or honest error. 
Scientific discovery is accelerating. Science is more complex, there is more of it, and the methods of dissemination have fundamentally changed in the past 10 years into something that is much more open, via the web, and thus more scrutinized. But just as the pace of science accelerates, so inevitably will the discovery of errors in papers since more mistakes will happen and as the papers are scrutinized more errors will be found. The acceleration of science and the additional scrutiny are to be welcomed, but in order to ensure that errors (from whatever means – unintentional or intentional) are not simply incorporated uncritically into the scientific literature at an accelerated rate themselves, so the mechanisms and the attitudes concerning corrections and retractions will need to be rethought.
At PLOS our mission is to accelerate progress in science and medicine by leading a transformation in research communication. We firmly believe that acceleration also requires being open about correcting the literature as needed so that research can be built on a solid foundation. Hence as editors and as a publisher we encourage the publication of studies that replicate or refute work we have previously published. We work with authors (through communication with the corresponding author) to publish corrections if we find parts of articles to be inaccurate. If a paper’s major conclusions are shown to be wrong we will retract the paper. By doing so, and by being open about our motives, we hope to clarify once and for all that there is no shame in correcting the literature. Despite the best of efforts, errors occur and their timely and effective remedy should be considered the mark of responsible authors, editors and publishers. We welcome further discussion of this important topic.
Virginia Barbour, Medicine Editorial Director, PLOS
Kasturi Haldar, Editor-In-Chief, PLOS Pathogens
1] Urisman A, Molinaro RJ, Fischer N, Plummer SJ, Casey G, et al. (2006) Identification of a Novel Gammaretrovirus in Prostate Tumors of Patients Homozygous for R462Q RNASEL Variant. PLoS Pathog 2(3): e25. doi:10.1371/journal.ppat.0020025
2] Stieler K, Schindler S, Schlomm T, Hohn O, Bannert N, et al. (2011) No Detection of XMRV in Blood Samples and Tissue Sections from Prostate Cancer Patients in Northern Europe. PLoS ONE 6(10): e25592. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0025592