Why do retracted papers continue to be cited though the research is discredited?

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Why do retracted papers continue to be cited though the research is discredited?

Retraction is a way of alerting the research community of a paper’s questionable credibility, and thus, a clear indication that the paper should no longer be cited as a valid basis of any study. However, retracted papers continue to have an ‘afterlife’ long after they are declared to be retracted. According to a study conducted by John M. Budd—a professor at the School of Information Science and Learning Technologies, University of Missouri, Columbia—retracted papers are regularly cited by researchers. Similar results were obtained in a study by Philip Davis of Scholarly Kitchen. So why are retracted papers cited?

Although most researchers would want to avoid citing retracted papers, a basic stumbling block they face is the lack of information regarding retractions. Many journals fail to act promptly in retracting articles and publishing retraction notices, for various reasons. In some cases, journals may take months or even years to investigate claims of unreliable research and reach a decision, whereas in other scenarios, authors may refuse to retract their papers. Thus, researchers might cite papers without knowing that the concerned papers have been retracted. Aggravating this situation further is the fact that many journals are hesitant to publicize retraction-related news in order to safeguard their reputation. Moreover, a search for papers on Google can land the reader directly on the PDF version of the papers, bypassing retraction notices.

Even when journals do publish retraction notices, they fail to follow the recommendations of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE). COPE advocates that retraction notifications should be prominently featured on the journal’s electronic and print pages, and that all online versions of the concerned articles (abstract, full text, PDF, etc.) should carry a ‘retracted’ indicator, along with the reasons for retraction. However, journal publishers maintain that following this protocol is not always feasible as the Internet offers researchers several avenues to access research papers, which makes the process of circulating retraction announcements very complicated. Further, papers that have been downloaded on personal computers or saved in institutional repositories are beyond journal publisher’s reach and can be easily circulated.

Despite all these limiting factors, most experts believe that it is ultimately researchers themselves who should be careful in selecting the studies that they cite. Given the exponentially increasing publication volume, arguably, researchers can hardly be expected to be aware of all papers in their field and their outcome. However, as Mr. John M. Budd speculates, some authors seem to be unaware of articles that have been retracted years ago, which suggests that they do not look for the original articles on the publisher’s website, but find them through more roundabout and less reliable means. In the race to get published as quickly as possible, authors may skip their moral responsibility of basing their findings on reliable and well-researched facts. This could not only damage their reputation but also hamper scientific progress.

To tackle this issue, Phil Davis suggests that publishers adopt the following approaches targeted at different stages of the literature review and citation process:

  • Discovery: Alerting readers that an article has been retracted at the search and retrieval stage through bibliographic and citation coupling of the article with the retraction notice.
  • Reading: Providing status updates for articles with services such as CrossMark.
  • Writing: Integrating status lookup functions into reference managers like Mendeley and EndNote.
  • Publishing: Detecting retracted references in bibliographies during the manuscript review process.  

Essentially, scientific communication needs to become competent to create transparency and make inroads for communication between publishers and researchers. Retraction notices should be circulated to all possible sources by journals, while authors should ensure that the research they reference in their papers is reliable and up-to-date.

You might also be interested in reading related articles:

Should plagiarism lead to retraction in all circumstances?

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