We’ve known for a while that too many researchers cite retracted papers. But in what context do those citations occur? Are some authors citing a retracted paper as an example of problematic findings, or do most citing authors treat the findings as legitimate, failing to realize they are no longer valid? In a new paper in Scientometrics, Gali Halevi at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York and Judit Bar-Ilan at Bar-Ilan University in Israel examined citations to 15 papers retracted in 2014. Halevi told us why she was surprised to see how many authors don’t realize retracted papers are problematic, and what the publishing community can do to get the word out.
Retraction Watch: We’ve noticed that many papers are cited long after being retracted, without notifying readers the paper is problematic. You looked at citations to retracted papers and tracked how the citing authors described the paper – noting that its findings were problematic given the retraction (negative), or treating the findings as legitimate research that affirms the newer paper’s results (positive). The vast majority of post-retraction citations – 83% — were positive. Did that surprise you?
Gali Halevi: Understanding the context of the citations was one of our main goals. We expected that although retracted articles were still cited these would be negative mentions. It did surprise us to discover that the vast majority of them treated retracted articles as legitimate citations despite of their faults. What’s worrying is that many of the retracted articles were due to faulty data, plagiarism and unethical behavior. Citing these articles as valid presents a danger to the progress and validity of science.
RW: You note that many articles become freely available once they’re retracted. Although the Committee on Publication Ethics has asked publishers to make retraction notices freely available, and clearly mark papers as retracted, you suggest that publishers remove retracted papers from their database entirely. Why?
GH: The problem with making retracted articles freely available is that they have a larger audience of readers. We also need to remember that there are many countries, especially developing countries, which have very limited resources and rely mostly on freely available content. Having retracted articles freely available means that thousands of scientists without access to properly peer reviewed content might use these as valid forms of content. In addition, research has shown that open access content receives more reads than paid-for content. Having retracted articles in open access form means that they would probably receive more reads and attention than they should. We believe it’s better to remove them from circulation all together, even retracted papers behind a paywall, especially considering the fact that they are still cited.
RW: You suggest that publishers check reference lists to see if any papers were retracted. Many papers list many references – do you think some publishers and editors may argue they don’t have time to do this?
GH: This can be accomplished via simple system guidelines and doesn’t require much time. It does require some technical development of retracted articles lists and comparing them to references lists. We believe that this can be accomplished via an automatic process. It will require some financial investment rather than time. Publishers use software to test for plagiarism. Checking for retractions is much simpler. There are only a few thousand retracted articles. So it is not difficult to create a database that lists all these articles, and to develop a tool that automatically checks whether there are retracted articles in the reference list.
RW: Some of your other recommendations include creating a retractions database (we agree, which is why we’re creating one) and urging all providers of scientific papers (PubMed, journal websites, etc) work together to universally mark a paper as retracted. What are some of the obstacles to achieving this integration between different sites, and how can they be overcome?
GH: We think that the biggest hurdle is aligning the interests of commercial publishers. Each company has their own priorities and financial investments. It might be difficult to find common interest and investment in such a venture. Maybe a joint effort between universities and publishers would be more successful. Universities wouldn’t probably want retracted articles from their faculty to show up in scientific literature. A joint committee of academia and commercial publishers might be a good way to begin such a conversation.
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