17 August 2020


'How do academia and society react to erroneous or deceitful claims? The case of retracted articles’ recognition' by Hajar Sotudeh, Nilofar Barahmand, Zahra Yousefi and Maryam Yaghtin in (2020) Journal of Information Science comments 

Researchers give credit to peer-reviewed, and thus, credible publications through citations. Despite a rigorous reviewing process, certain articles undergo retraction due to disclosure of their ethical or scientific deficiencies. It is, therefore, important to understand how society and academia react to the erroneous or deceitful claims and purge the science of their unreliable results. Applying a matched-pairs research design, this study examined a sample of medicine-related retracted and non-retracted articles matched by their content similarity. The regression analysis revealed similarities in obsolescence trends of the retracted and non-retracted groups. The Generalized Estimating Equations showed that citations are affected by the retraction status, life after retraction, life cycle and the journals’ previous reputation, with the two formers being the strongest in positively predicting the citations. The retracted papers obtain fewer citations either before or after retraction, implying academia’s watchful reaction to the low-quality papers even before official announcement of their fallibility. They exhibit an equal or higher social recognition level regarding Tweets and Blog Mentions, while a lower status regarding Mendeley Readership. This could signify social users’ sensibility regarding scientific quality since they probably publicise the retraction and warn against the retracted items in their tweets or blogs, while avoiding recording them in their Mendeley profiles. Further scrutiny is required to gain insight into the sensibility, if any, about scientific quality. The study’s originality relies on matching the retracted and non-retracted papers with their topics and neutralising variations in their citation potentials. It is also the first study comparing the groups’ social impacts.

The authors conclude 

Although scholars have to pursue the most valid and reliable research design to achieve the most truthful knowledge, they may intentionally or unintentionally report fallible or deceptive knowledge. The misconducts or mistakes can be positioned on a severity continuum from innocuous (e.g. gift authorship, duplicated publication and salami effect) to crucial (e.g. data making and fabrication) [92]. Recently, the scientific community has been experiencing an increase in scientific fraud which is believed to have roots in the competitive atmosphere of science characterised by ‘publish or perish pressure’ [93], researchers’ ambitions and financial needs, scientific hubris [92,94], pressure to publish in ‘high impact’ journals [58], lack of research funds and the proliferation of predatory OA journals [95]. Fraud and deceit in medicine are tightly related and directly detrimental to human well-being and health and are, therefore, considered as an ‘evolving type of crime’ [96]. Consequently, any mistakes, either intentional or inadvertent, ought to be cancelled out as soon as detected. Retraction is a mechanism expected to offset the negative consequences of scientific misconduct and mistakes. This gives rise to the question of how the mechanism has been successful in achieving its ultimate goals. According to research findings, withdrawn papers continue to receive citations [94,97]. However, no studies were found to compare the retracted papers with their non-retracted peers dealing with the same topics. To re-investigate the phenomenon, the present study used a matched-pairs research design to compare the obsolescence trends and citation counts of the retracted and non-retracted papers. The results of the regression analyses showed that the retracted and non-retracted groups of articles show similarities in their obsolescence trend, in that both reach their peak points in the same ages (third year of publication) and adhere to an exponential model in their annual trends after the peaks (Figure 1). The former group achieves its peak at a considerably lower point, although it shows a rather positive increasing trend in their Citation Geo-Mean before retraction. However, the group starts to get obsolete after retraction with an even more accelerated pace compared with that of its non-retracted rival group 

The results of the GEE analyses revealed that the traditional citation counts of the papers in the sample are affected by their retraction status, life cycle, life after retraction and average JIF, which is in line with the existing knowledge [2,14,98]. The positive effect of the citation age relative to the retraction date reveals that the later a paper is retracted, the higher its citation counts are. However, it is not a strong element. Instead, according to the B coefficients of the model, the ‘non-retracted’ and ‘after retraction’ categories are the strongest factors which positively predict the citation quantity. The pairwise comparison of the factors revealed that the non-retracted papers are higher in their citation counts compared with their retracted peers either before or after their retraction. Although both groups experience an increase in their citations in the second phase of their lives (i.e. after retraction), the retracted papers are lower in their citation quantity even in this phase. 

Overall, according to the obsolescence trend that continues at a faster pace after retraction for the retracted papers, one may conclude that the scientific community starts to reduce recognising the papers after the public announcement of the fallibility of the claims. In other words, the retraction mechanism relatively succeeds in preventing the spread of the fallible information. However, the fact that the citations to the retracted papers are higher in number after retraction compared with those received in before-retraction phase reveals that the retraction mechanism does not come to completely eradicate, but to attenuate the negative consequences of the erroneous and worthless outputs. The situation seems to be the same as reported in 1990 by Pfeifer and Snodgrass [60], who observed the citations to the retracted papers to be reduced, but not ‘effectively purged’. 

Low quality of papers could not be completely hidden from the sharp eyes of judicious scholars. The relatively fewer citation counts received by the retracted papers before retraction compared with their non-retracted peers – either in the same period or in the after-retraction phase – can witness the existence of some already withheld potential citations. Consequently, why the withdrawal of the papers fails to orient the scientific community towards the complete eradication may rely on somehow inevitable and shallow citations caused by such factors as coincidence and negligence. On the one hand, some of the citing papers may be accepted or published at the same time that their cited articles are announced to be retracted. Therefore, the citation would be inevitably released before or at the time of the authors’ awareness of the official announcement of the retraction. On the other hand, the ongoing citation to the retracted papers can be attributed to some kind of superficial impact. As scholars are not necessarily scrupulous and conscious in their citation habits, they may choose and cite easily accessible items, rely on the most visible and the shortest representation of an item (e.g. abstracts, second-hand citations and snippets) without digging deep into its details, tactically cite (e.g. perfunctory citation given out of politeness, policy or piety), and cite to provide background and introductory information. It is obvious that these types of citations cannot signify a profound impact. Moreover, the free (or low cost) online and widespread availability of a wide range of materials puts all contents with different degrees of validity and authority on the same level of accessibility and hence on the same level of credibility in the minds of Internet users [99]. This may arouse some kind of passive impact characterised by the user’s loss of his/her control (or needs of control) over his/her information seeking behaviour. This may be reflected in users’ lack of critical evaluation knowledge and skills [99], unwillingness to undertake extensive efforts to verify the credibility of online information and their rare and occasional use of information quality criteria [100,101]. 

According to the findings related to the social metrics, non-retraction positively predicts the social impact, as measured by Mendeley Readership, while negatively explains it when measured by Blog Mentions or Tweets, though the effect is not significant for the latter. This is in line with previous findings confirming the high correlation of papers’ quality with their Mendeley Readership [26,40,41] and its low correlation with Tweet counts [34]. The retracted papers are significantly lower in their Mendeley Readership compared with their non-retracted peers. The positive association of retraction with the Tweets and Blog Mentions and its negative association with Mendeley Readership may seem paradoxical at the first glance. However, the situation would be clarified when the differences of the social networks in terms of their nature and functions are taken into consideration. In fact, Mendeley is a reference manager. It is probably that Mendeley users added the retracted articles before retraction and then did not verify the records to delete the retracted ones. It is, thus, interesting to conduct further investigations to test how the retracted articles are added to Mendeley libraries before and after retraction. Moreover, as Mendeley is an online scholarly social network devoted to scientific research and reference management [102], it is more scientific in nature. It is, therefore, not far from expectations that its users show to be more prudent when confronting poor quality papers. However, Twitter and Blogs are relatively more public and popular in nature [103] with the potential to attract lay audiences [104]. Consequently, there could be a contamination risk of disseminating the retracted papers among the public by non-expert users with low information literacy and evaluation skills. On the other hand, the social users may use the microblogging and sharing the facilities of such social networks as Twitter or Blogs to broadcast, discuss and probably warn about a new retraction. The Retraction Watch blog [48] devoted to the discussion on the retracted papers is an obvious instance. As a result, a social post containing a link to a retracted paper announcing its retraction can gain momentum, go viral and lead to a high social impact for the retracted article. From this angle, the increase in tweeting retracted articles is not harmful, but constructive in the sense that it helps readers in distinguishing the valid and invalid papers. This gives rise to the question of how social networking functions regarding the fake and fallible scientific claims: does it leverage their diffusion or help to promote public watchfulness? Is it possible that the social users publicise the retraction and warn against the retracted articles in their Tweets or blogs while avoiding recording them in their Mendeley profiles? The various and mixed motivations of social mentioning require further studies to shed light on the real societal impact of the retracted papers. 

On this basis, the results of the present study urge for enhancing information and media literacy, especially training to assess credibility [99]. It also highlights the necessity for a more watchful and reliable reviewing system to detect and weed the poor quality manuscripts before their publications. It also highlights the need for a highly visible and transparent system of alerting and awareness raising about the retracted items as also proposed by Korpela [63]. 

The present research has some limitations. Given the relatively small size of the sample, the results of the present study are not generalizable and should be interpreted with caution. Moreover, retraction reasons which are not taken into consideration here are of different importance. For example, frauds more seriously jeopardise scientific authenticity and ethics than accidental mistakes or authorship conflicts. Accordingly, the citations to the retracted articles are not of the same importance. It is, therefore, necessary to repeat the research by taking the withdrawal reasons into account and comparing the impacts of the retracted papers categorised by the gravity of their retraction reasons. Furthermore, the retracted articles showed to be equal or higher in their societal impact regarding Tweets and Blog Mentions compared with their non-retracted counterparts, while they have a lower status in Mendeley Readership. This requires scrutinised opinion mining to elucidate the motivations of social users in mentioning them.