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[ RESEARCH INTEGRITY ] July 31, 2023

The challenge of citing retracted research

Often dubbed the "death penalty" in scholarly publishing, retractions are a critical quality control measure as science self-corrects. Shockingly, many papers continue to resurface in academic citations even after being retracted. Why does this happen, and what havoc does it wreak? Let's explore this phenomenon.

Why does retracted research continue to be cited?

Despite information about retracted research being available through journal statements and online databases, researchers continue to cite retracted work. Of course, some scholars do so purposefully to highlight the disproven nature of those findings or to contrast them with their own work. Yet, a vast majority (up to 90% in biomedicine, according to Ivan Oransky) unknowingly ignore the retraction status.

The strained peer review system, coupled with a shortage of reviewers, has created an environment where poor-quality research citing retracted studies can easily slip through the cracks, remaining undetected and damaging the integrity of the scholarly record. In addition, when researchers cite papers without verifying their legitimacy or acknowledging retractions, the iterative nature of science contributes to a domino effect of misinformation, affecting all studies that build upon these original findings.

What’s more, the fear associated with the term "retraction" has led societies, journals, and publishers to hide these occurrences from the wider academic community and public. But, this reluctance worsens the problem by furthering the spread of misinformation, damaging academic credibility, wasting time and resources, and tarnishing the reputation of the original authors as more people become aware of the study's flaws. 

 

What are some notable examples?

 

The impact of a Mediterranean diet on heart health

Does an olive a day keep the doctor away?  In 2013, a study seemed to suggest just that, stating that individuals on a Mediterranean diet supplemented with olive oil had a 30 percent lower risk of heart attack, stroke, or cardiovascular death compared to those on a low-fat regimen. This trending research was covered by major news outlets like NPR, and caused quite the stir within both the scientific community and the public.

But, the plot thickened in 2018, when research integrity sleuth John Carlisle, who evaluated over 5,000 trials, spotted flaws in about 2 percent of the studies, including the one describing the benefits of the Mediterranean diet.

The research was later retracted by the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) due to errors in the randomized trial, with a correction later being published stating that people eating the Mediterranean diet had fewer strokes and heart attacks, not, as the original paper claimed, that the diet was the direct cause of those health benefits. Yet, in December 2020, Retraction Watch named this study as #1 in their list of the top 10 most highly cited retracted papers.

 

The lingering influence of retracted COVID research

A more recent example is the pervasive wave of flawed COVID-19 research even after their retractions. As Science Mag covered in 2021, the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) and The Lancet both published research papers in 2020 amidst the scramble for information about the coronavirus and its impact. In the rush to share information about the virus, both journals published papers that later turned out to contain deep flaws. These studies relied on data from the notorious Surgisphere database, a fraudulent collection of hospital records. The aftermath? The Lancet's paper gave rise to a pause in a major clinical trial, while the NEJM article increased controversy over the use of hydroxychloroquine, a drug promoted by then-President Donald Trump, as a COVID-19 treatment, which was later proven ineffective.

Although the papers were retracted in June 2020, they still have a lingering presence in public health research. A paper in the prestigious journal Nature Communications, published in December of the same year, cited the NEJM article without referencing its retraction. Even further, Science Mag discovered that out of 200 examined papers published after the retractions, 105 of them inappropriately cited one of the discredited studies.

 

How can we put a stop to this trend?

We’ve explored details about this phenomenon, but what can be done to combat it?

Let’s start with a culture shift. The scientific community must understand the positive potential that retractions hold. We can’t address problems in research if we don’t recognize them. Rather than being signs of doom and gloom, retractions are opportunities for us to learn, grow, and change for the better. They represent science’s incredible ability to self-correct. Once we acknowledge this, we can better communicate retractions to prevent scholars from building their work on or citing findings that have been rightfully retracted.

 

Conclusion

Tackling this issue will require more than just cultural shifts. We need to harness the innovative potential of technology and implement integrity-driven workflows from start to finish.

At Morressier, we’re all about adapting and transforming for the greater good. That's why we've taken a proactive step with our latest integrity products. With our Author Submission Checks, authors can now confidently review their work for any rogue citations as they navigate their editing and drafting stages. Our Integrity Manager aids publishers in conducting a thorough final check on cited research, after an extensive peer review process. Our tool ensures that no retractions occurred during the paper's evaluation period.

These upgraded capabilities empower researchers, publishers, editors, and organizers to ensure that they steer clear of citing retracted papers, providing publishers with the freedom to boldly scale, expand research offerings, and publish tomorrow's breakthroughs with the highest levels of confidence.

automated author Submission Checks

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