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I recently came across a very old article of mine. The article was written at the beginning of my career when we were pressured to publish extensively. There is nothing really wrong with the article, but it is written in poor language (my English was very basic at the time) and it has no special academic value content-wise.

Do you think it is ethical to retract an article just because I don't like it anymore? Or do I have to accept that a badly written article is attached to my name and live with it?

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    I might be mistaken, but I believe the publisher is the one who would decide to retract an article or not. And no, I don't think they would do this for this reason only. Nov 26 '21 at 12:15
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    Wouldn't someone seeing your article online (e.g. in the table of contents of the digitized archive of that journal) and seeing "An analysis of XXX using semi-metric dimensional flux flows by P. Q. Riez -- RETRACTED" be much more problematic than not having "RETRACTED" splashed over the title? Something like this is going to be noticed by anyone who happens to be looking through the table of contents, whereas what you're concerned with would only be noticed if someone actually went to the trouble to look at the paper (and also actually cared . . .). And what about print versions in libraries? Nov 26 '21 at 21:17
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You probably won't be allowed to retract the article, so the ethics of it doesn't arise.

See e.g. this policy on when retractions happen:

Journal Editors should consider retracting a publication if:

  • It contains infringements of professional ethical codes, such as multiple submissions, bogus claims of authorship, plagiarism, fraudulent use of data, etc.
  • It contains major errors (e.g. miscalculations or experimental errors) or the main conclusion is no longer valid or seriously undermined as a result of new evidence coming to light of which Authors were not aware at the time of publication.

Since your paper is neither, the editor is not likely to approve a retraction.

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    I am guessing this is for when an editor can retract an article. What about the author, can the author not decide to retract an article by himself?
    – mihalu
    Nov 26 '21 at 14:05
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    @mihalu no (see source). "It is a general principle of scholarly communication that the Editor of a journal or proceedings is solely and independently responsible for deciding which articles submitted shall be published ... Note that if Authors retain copyright for an article this does not mean they automatically have the right to withdraw it after publication. The integrity of the published scientific record is of paramount importance and these policies on retractions and withdrawals still apply in such cases."
    – Allure
    Nov 26 '21 at 14:32
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I doubt that it can be done, since a publisher was once happy enough to publish it. And if anyone has depended on this article, no matter how "primitive" you find it now, you would be disrupting the flow of scholarship. Whether that is ethical or not depends on your frame. Who now "owns" the work in a philosophical (not legal) sense.

But, let me change the frame a bit. Your dissatisfaction with your early work is nothing more than a sign of growth. If your best work is in your past then you have stopped moving forward.

I've been told that some poets, occasionally at least, sometimes cringe at their early work. But that is because they have gone beyond it. And that early work likely let to later, better, work. The same is probably true for you.

You did the best you were capable of at the time. You have advanced past that stage. Celebrate it.


Note that I've assumed that the paper doesn't contain actual errors or, worse, cause harm. If that were the case then the original author is an excellent person to provide a follow up paper dealing with the issues. That would be superior to a retraction in many ways.

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As in the other good answers: first, in the U.S. and western Europe, as far as I know, it is not the author's choice whether to "retract" or not, in the traditional peer-reviewed setting. Second, the editors/publishers probably will not want to make a practice of this, for several reasons. Third, doing so can make a mess of bibliographic citations in other papers.

(Indeed, the impermanence of stuff on the internet is one problem with references thereto... but is probably inescapable. Yes, I do correct old on-line documents of my own, so that an old reference can become inaccurate... even while the factual aspects of the document have improved. No easy fix...)

Also, of_course we are all somewhat embarrassed of our earlier work. Nevermind. :)

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It’s useful to keep in mind that the term “retraction” in the academic context is really a kind of shorthand for the act of the editorial board of a journal effectively stating that it does not stand behind the content of an article they published anymore. Thus, from that point on the article cannot enjoy the credibility of having been published in that journal. The article itself will still exist, but readers will draw different conclusions on what its existence means and how much its content is to be trusted.

So, as others have said, the decision whether to retract is not up to the author, since this is about a statement made by the journal. But, as an author you are free to issue your own statement on any forum or medium (say Twitter, or your personal home page) explaining how you feel about the work. You can state “I no longer consider this work valid”, or “I no longer consider this work up to my standard for publishable work”, or anything else that accurately conveys how you feel. In that sense, by making the statement you will be “retracting” the article.

Now, the value of taking such a step seems very dubious to me. As with a journal’s retraction, the statement changes nothing about the article existing. But regardless, you are free to make such a statement and I don’t see that doing so has any particular ethical implications, assuming that your statement is a truthful one.

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