Some authors seem to cite their own retracted studies. Should we be concerned?
Some authors of retracted studies persist in citing their retracted work, according to a new study in Science and Engineering Ethics that calls the trend “very concerning.”
Our findings indicate new reasons for retractions have emerged in recent years, and more editors are penning retractions. The rates of increase for retraction varies by category, and there is statistically significant difference of average impact factor between many categories. 18 % of authors self-cite retracted work post retraction with only 10 % of those authors also citing the retraction notice. Further, there is a positive correlation between self-cites and after retraction citations.
The authors note that “In recent years, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of retractions written by editors:”
Ferric Fang, whose work on retractions will be familiar to Retraction Watch readers, said that was good news::
The increasing role of editors in retracting articles is a welcome trend, and Madlock-Brown and Eichmann document that it is a quite recent phenomenon. Not so long ago many editors used to feel that only authors could retract a publication, and this allowed the persistence of fraudulent work in the literature.
The authors say they’ve identified a new category of reasons for retraction, namely editorial mistakes for which the authors are blameless. But we’ve certainly seen a lot of those over the past few years, and Grant Steen noted them in a 2010 study that the new one cites.
The authors of the new paper conclude:
That many authors of retracted work continue to self-cite is very concerning, particularly given that many refrain from citing the retraction. Clearly, if the author needs to refer to their retracted work, the retraction should additionally be cited. We found a positive correlation between self-cites of retracted work and the number of citations to the work after retraction. This correlation suggests that authors may be able to influence the way their retracted work is viewed is viewed by referring to retracted work without citing the retraction and thereby maintaining the appearance of legitimacy. However, we can’t necessarily assume nefarious intent. Authors may self-cite while highlighting aspects of their work that remain valid. They may not consider self-citing without citing the retraction as inappropriate. It is further possible that not all listed co-authors are made aware of the retraction and cite it in good faith.
The phenomenon of self-cites to retracted work is a serious problem. Most (66 %) of the self-cites involve retractions due to errors and non-reproducibility. Boosting the overall citation counts with self-cites increases the perceived legitimacy of the work and can lead to wasted hours of research and resources.
They call for a retraction database, which we’ve said for a few years that we want to create (and have begun working on, with our categorization of posts). And also for publishers to use CrossMark, which we endorsed in late 2011.
Fang told us that “most of the observations seem confirmatory of earlier studies,” but that the title of the paper — “The (lack of) Impact of Retraction on Citation Networks” — might be a bit misleading:
It has already been shown in multiple studies that citations decline following a retraction, so retraction clearly does impact citation networks (e.g., Pfeifer & Snodgrass. JAMA, 1990; Lu et al. Sci Rep, 2013). The new study shows that some authors continue to cite papers that they have retracted. I’m not certain what to make of this. Perhaps this is inappropriate, but perhaps not. Most of these self-cited papers were retracted due to error or non-reproducibility of data. As the authors acknowledge, there may still be legitimate reasons for citing a retracted paper if some of the data remain valid, and one would have to check on a case-by-case basis to determine whether the citation was appropriate. Since this was not done, I am not persuaded that this is “very concerning,” as the authors suggest. If retracted articles are clearly marked as such and identified in databases, the research community should be reasonably safeguarded from mistakenly regarding the articles as valid.
Hat tip: Rolf Degen
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