Ask Retraction Watch: Is it OK to cite a retracted paper?

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From our mailbox:

I’m writing regarding a recent query from an author about citation of a retracted article. The author is currently writing up a paper where the initial investigations were at least partially inspired by a paper that has recently been retracted. The author wants to recognise the influence of that work on the new study, but also recognises that – since the paper has been retracted – it would not be appropriate simply to cite it as though it were still a published paper. This isn’t a situation we’ve come across before, and I’m not sure how best to advise the author. Is it acceptable to discuss the findings of that paper provided the text clearly mentions that the paper has since been retracted? And how should this be cited in the reference list – citation to the original paper, to the retraction notice, or not at all? As experts in this area, any guidance you could provide would be greatly appreciated.

Retraction Watch readers may be familiar with our leaderboard of most-cited retracted papers, several of which have been cited hundreds of times since they were retracted. The problem is when such citations of retracted papers don’t indicate that the studies are retracted — which remains a problem.

Our recommendation? It’s perfectly fine to cite a retracted paper, as long as the retraction is noted. Ideally, the we’d suggest citing both the paper and the retraction notice, which (according to best practices) should have different DOIs. And you can check for retracted papers in our database.

Here’s more about how to format such a citation using APA style. And here are recommendations from Judit Bar-Ilan and Gali Halevi from a paper they’ve published on the issue:

Publishers should conduct thorough reference checks to detect citations of retracted articles and remove them. If an article lists or refers to a retracted publication, a clear notice of retraction should be listed in the reference list and the reference text as well. Editors should question why authors cite retracted publications and unless the editor and the peer reviewers are convinced that the citation is essential, references to retracted articles should be removed.

Finally, here’s what experts recommend if a paper you’ve cited is later retracted.

Have a question for us? Email retractionwatchteam@gmail.com.

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4 thoughts on “Ask Retraction Watch: Is it OK to cite a retracted paper?”

  1. Wow…interesting question. I also think it is ok to cite a retracted paper, as long it’s made clear that it’s been retracted.

    What if the retracted paper is a scientific study (for example) and the authors clearly did something wrong. Someone else reads it and the retraction and then figures out what was done wrong and then corrects it and s/he publishes a paper. If this second author doesn’t at least mention the retracted paper, would it be dishonest to imply (through omission) that the second author thought of the problem and the solution all by him/herself? Even a retracted paper can “inspire” others.

  2. ” Someone else reads it and the retraction and then figures out what was done wrong and then corrects it and s/he publishes a paper. If this second author doesn’t at least mention the retracted paper, would it be dishonest to imply (through omission) that the second author thought of the problem and the solution all by him/herself? ”

    I am not sure about that. If somebody has made claims based on problematic data and the publication is retracted why do others need to cite the retracted paper if later they could support the claims with data others did not find problematic? The people who had a paper retracted do not own the claims they could not support, they do not own the future. There may be examples in many fields where the inspiration to make claims comes from what that community believes, hypotheses rarely come out of the blue.

  3. In the piece above, you link to how APA handles citing a retraction. Do other major citation guides provide such guidance?

  4. WOW — I have posted this exact question on Pubpeer almost one year ago:
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/A0B6350B5B5B2475501A07C82B2DE3

    We were advised to cite the Arxiv version of the paper instead of the retracted one, which sounds also fair.

    I no longer care about anonymity on this case since the whole project I was involved in regarding this question has (in my view) failed. I will not herein dig into the details, but I clarify my doubts at the time below.

    My doubts regarded this specific paper:

    https://www.nature.com/articles/nature18613

    The paper was retracted apparently because the observed effects resulted of a different gene KO (I have consulted with someone expert in this field) and therefore could not be replicated. However a main part of the paper regards bioinformatics leading to the proposal of new synthetic insect repellents. We have tested two of their proposed candidates against some top invasive ant with (apparently remarkable) success, and I fully prepared a resulting manuscript for publication on a major journal. I was afraid citing a retracted paper as a main reference would affect the judgement of editors/reviewers, and could see no other way around that. Anyway, I have ultimately ejected myself from this specific project as fundamental inconsistencies were too belatedly revealed, and I did not agree with some actions. Still perhaps the others will still publish that manuscript, and I might link it later here. I am keeping some lessons from this.

    From the beginning of the Retraction wave around 2008 I have been questioning myself why should we (scientists) fully trust publishers to dictate what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ for our work and logic. This retraction is an example of how a flawed paper may still prove useful to others in the field and ought not to ‘disappear’.

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