Retraction Backlash

Retracting a paper from the scientific literature can lead to fewer citations for related studies.  

By | November 1, 2012

Flickr, Robert CudmoreWhen one study is retracted, other studies in similar areas of research face a 5 to 10 percent decline in citations, causing whole fields to suffer, according to a study published this month by economists at Boston University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

“Our findings show that scientific misconduct and mistakes, as signaled to the scientific community through retractions, cause a relative decline in the vitality of neighboring intellectual fields," the author’s write. “These spillovers in intellectual space are significant in magnitude and persistent over time.”

In their study, the economists examined more than 1,100 retractions and categorized them into one of three causes: minor errors, plagiarism or institutional disputes; questionable findings or partially invalid results; and outright fraud or severely compromised data. The authors found that in fields where questionable findings or outright fraud led to retractions, related studies suffered the most, which the author’s speculate could be due to scientist’s wariness of building on invalid studies or concern over being associated with dubious research.

Overall, the authors conclude that related research areas are hurt by a retraction. “There are fewer papers being published in these fields and also less funding available to write such papers,” they write.

The finding emphasizes the importance of making public the reasons for retracting a manuscript, noted Ivan Oransky at Retraction Watch. “If notices make it clear there was no misconduct involved, the field may not take as big a hit," he wrote. "This is the sort of nuance that is often lost in the discussion of whether highlighting misconduct promotes mistrust in science — a phenomenon we suggest is shooting the messenger."

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