Why & How To Withdraw a Published Research Paper from a Journal
Once an academic or scientific paper has been published by a journal, it is usually too late to withdraw it, which is why it is so important to learn all you can about the journal and be absolutely certain that it is the right home for your research before you submit a manuscript and certainly before you formally agree to publication. Regardless of the reason for wanting to withdraw your published paper, the withdrawal will constitute a retraction, and retractions must be reported for readers, so retracting your paper will be a public act that will not simply disappear. It will remain a part of your publishing career, and not one with positive implications, so the extreme measure of withdrawing a published paper should not be seriously considered unless it is the only valid option.
The first consideration should be your reason for wanting to retract a research paper that has already been published. Retractions are extremely rare, so a retraction notice of the kind used by reputable academic and scientific journals will suggest to readers that there was something wrong with the research or the paper, and, by implication, that you, the author, are guilty of misconduct. Therefore, only if there really is something wrong with the research or the article should this option be chosen. If, for instance, you have discovered that your data is incorrect, that your co-author borrowed material without acknowledging it, that author contributions are inaccurate or that extensive errors mar the paper, retraction may be necessary. Paper retraction would also be justified if errors and problems are the result of the journal’s poor editorial practices or you have been misled about the journal’s fees or procedures. Do keep in mind, however, that working to resolve problems and misunderstandings can be far more effective than retraction, especially if you are able to edit or otherwise fix the published paper.
If, on the other hand, you wish to withdraw your published paper because the journal does not have the impact or readership you were expecting and you now wish to publish your research in a more prestigious journal, be warned that this will almost certainly be considered inappropriate, unethical and illegal, and is very unlikely to prove productive. If reaching the right readers is a life and death issue, you may be able to present a compelling argument to the editor who published your paper, but online access means that virtually any research article is discoverable, so unless there are flaws in the paper, it remains a questionable argument. Whatever you hope to achieve by publishing the paper in a top-tier journal would in any case have to outweigh the negative consequences of a retraction on your publication record, and since academic and scientific journals rarely publish research that has already been published elsewhere, regardless of the circumstances, you may end up with no home for your paper.
If you do decide that retracting your published paper is a necessity, you will need to write a formal letter to the editor to explain the problems, apologise for any that you caused and request the retraction. If he or she suggests other resolutions, do all you can to facilitate these, keeping in mind that editing the paper to eliminate errors or replacing it with a completely revised paper may be far more beneficial for you, the journal and its readers. Do not be surprised if an editor’s willingness to retract the paper comes with financial and publishing penalties. Finally, if you have signed a licensing or copyright agreement with the journal, as may well be the case with a published paper, it is essential to receive formal confirmation in writing that copyright has been returned to you before you pursue any future publishing plans for the same work. In the long run, then, unless a paper must be retracted, it is usually best to accept the publication you agreed to, maintain good relations all round and take away whatever you need to know to avoid the same pitfalls next time you submit your writing.
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If you are in the process of preparing an article for an academic or scientific journal, or planning one for the near future, you may well be interested in a new book, Guide to Journal Publication, which is available on our Tips and Advice on Publishing Research in Journals website.