Liz’s News of the Books

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This Article Will Not Be Retracted

These literary controversies keep creeping closer and closer to me. While maintaining a professional smokescreen about the situation, let me just say I was recently involved in a decision to retract an article, and it got me thinking about the reasons pieces get retracted. First, read about what a retraction is. For my purposes, we’ll say retraction is removing a previously published piece from the public view for reasons unrelated to space.

So I typed in “why do pieces get retracted” into Google and came back with an interesting blog on the subject. Retraction Watch apparently keeps track of retractions of scientific studies. Which is fascinating, because often we hear about studies being based on shoddy evidence and disproved. It’s a common practice in science—too common, it seems like, based on the amount of posts on the site, and apparently, according to one article I saw, getting even more endemic. But I was thinking more in the journalism and literary world. Why do things get pulled there?

I’d always thought it was because of myriad inaccuracies and/or plagiarism. I’ve written before about plagiarism, another editorial concern I find fascinating, and to me that makes sense—you suddenly learn that something is not true or comes from another source and has been passed off or improperly cited. While a certain amount of due diligence should and can prevent instances of plagiarism and inaccuracy from occurring before you get to the retraction stage, to be fair it’s hard to follow up on everything, and you do tend to have a certain level of trust with an author, especially a well-known one. For instance, the Mike Daisey/This American Life debacle. There were instances where the producers should have followed up, like when Daisey refused to give producers his translator’s phone number, but I mean honestly, who expected him to make most of his monologue up out of thin air?

Various writers, editors, and journalists of my acquaintance have not only confirmed my impression of retraction being reserved for cases of inaccuracy, but given me another instance in which a retraction plausibly occurs. That is in the case of over-the-top offensiveness. A friend pointed me to this spat in the Guardian, and while I suggest you not read the retracted piece because it is awful, you can clearly see why it was thought offensive. A similar example would the whole Quvenzhané Wallis Onion tweet. It is definitely not as common, though, and the offensive bar would have to be pretty high to summon a retraction. Otherwise, a certain amount of editorial wishy-washiness could be assumed. And my question about the offensive instance is, if it’s so horrifyingly offensive, why the heck was it not rejected in the first place? So it says something bad about the editors in either situation.

A freelance writer summed the instances where she would retract a piece: “If it was something I could not ethically stand by. That could be in a number of ways, such as whether or not it went against official policy, or if I saw a piece where I thought it was over-the-top offensive towards a certain group of people I don’t want to offend.  An example on policy would be factual inaccuracy. Offensive is a gray area.” And, as a writer friend reminded me, being negative is not illegal if it’s true. A negative review should not be more subject to retraction by dint of its content.

 The danger of retracting is that you make yourself look bad. Sometimes, that’s an appropriate risk to run: will you make yourself look worse by leaving the piece up over the long run than admitting a mistake and taking it down? The criteria for issuing a retraction should be clear, and very, very high. While they may come down to a matter of taste, those instances should be even rarer than those for inaccuracy. All retraction is bad. But some are worse than others, and the way the situation is handled can make or break an organization.

— Liz Baudler, Blogger

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