Retracted Papers Never Die
There’s another case of zombie science in peer-reviewed publishing: retracted papers that don’t stay dead.
Proponents of scientism often argue that science, unlike other realms of scholarship, is self-correcting. Peer review prevents bad papers from getting published (so goes the argument), but even after publication, other experts or the authors themselves can find flaws and notify the journal, which can issue a retraction. All well and good. We saw yesterday how important “integrity” is to some journals (5 Jan 2021). Why, then, are some papers still being cited over a decade after they were retracted?
Retracted scientific paper persists in new citations, study finds (University of Illinois). Jodi Schneider, a professor of information sciences at UI Urbana-Champaign, decided to look into why retracted papers continue to be cited. Her team began with a glaring example:
In a new study published in the journal Scientometrics, she found that a retracted clinical trial report continues to be cited 11 years after its retraction – and that citations actually increased after it was retracted….
The 2005 paper made claims about nutrition supplements that supposedly helped a medical condition. The data, however, had been falsified, and the paper was retracted 3 years later.
However, it continues to be cited to support the medical nutrition intervention. Schneider’s analysis covered 148 direct citations of the paper from 2006-2019 and 2,542 second-generation citations. The retraction was not mentioned in 96% of the 112 direct post-retraction citations for which she was able to study the context of the citation.
How did this happen? For one thing, journals do not have uniform standards for reporting retractions. For another, researchers often fail to look to see if a paper they want to cite has been retracted. And journals themselves often fail to check for retractions before they publish a paper. The website Retraction Watch, borne out of such concerns in 2010, has trouble keeping up with the number of retractions from so many papers coming at them from all directions, including foreign countries. Then there’s always the meta-concern, Who watches the watchers?
Any system designed to be self-correcting is not going to be reliable if the people using it are careless, uninformed, or dishonest.
How an article is cited matters – for example, whether authors seem aware of the retraction, whether they use the retracted paper as a foundation to build on with their own work or whether it is cited for a general concept or the history of research on a particular matter. Analyzing the context as well as the number of citations, Schneider found that more than 41% of the post-retraction citations of the respiratory medicine paper that did not mention the retraction also described the paper in detail.
Many scientists rightly deplore the internet memes that get passed through social media carelessly, such as miracle cures, conspiracies about vaccines, and UFO sightings. What’s the difference, though, if a flawed report about a treatment for a condition offers false hope?
The most disturbing part of Schneider’s study is the finding that this was not an isolated case. Due to the lack of standards and diligence in following procedures, there could be more incidents than anyone knows.
The retraction process can take a long time and involve institutional or governmental investigations, she said. The longer it takes to retract an article that is in error or fraudulent, the more likely it is to be cited in the meantime.
“The current information environment facilitates the spread of research papers, but basic facts about these papers, such as their retraction status, do not spread as swiftly as the PDFs or citations to these papers themselves. Our case study suggests that unknowing and likely unintentional citation of retracted papers could be common, and that post-retraction citation may be correlated with visibility of retraction status,” Schneider wrote.
Although the percentage of papers being retracted is small, the number of papers is large. Another failure of this self-correcting mechanism is that about 10% of retraction notices do not mention the reason for the retraction. Were the results falsified? Was there a flaw in the research methods? Was misconduct involved? Was an author accused of misconduct over something else? Those are relevant issues to someone wanting to know if parts of the research might still be correct.
More Causes for Doubts about “Self-Correction”
With the ease of publishing on the internet, the number of online-only journals has proliferated. That can be good and bad. Retraction notices can be disseminated quicker, rather than waiting to read them in the next weekly or monthly issue. But along with internet journals, there has been a rise in so-called predatory journals – cheap imitations of scientific journals published for the purpose of making money or giving voice to anyone with a pet theory to promote. Honest researchers have to be aware of the legitimacy of the journal they want to cite.
Techniques of deceptive publishing are so advanced now that some tricksters can publish machine-written papers, complete with graphs, illustrations and references, that are totally bogus.
Careless researchers can gain potentially un-earned credibility by having lots of references. How many readers truly believe that an author citing 115 papers in the references has actually read them all? The temptation to pad references is strong, and the method is easy: just do an internet search for some keywords, get the DOI (standard reference link), and read the abstract. More than a few papers we have come across have cited Darwin’s Origin of Species on some general aspect of evolution, without specifying what Darwin’s book has to do with the matter at hand.
In addition, the peer reviewers can be tempted to just scan through a paper, look at the long list of references and trust that the authors did their homework. Who has the time to check that all of them are relevant to the paper, much less to cross-check the retraction list?
These are concerns that plague scientific publishing. In the “publish or perish” environment of academia, temptations are strong to take shortcuts. As a consequence, falsehoods can proliferate around the world, and still be walking like zombies decades later. In his book Evolution’s Blunders, Frauds and Forgeries, CEH contributor Dr Jerry Bergman tells the story of Viswat Jit Gupta, who so polluted the field of Himalayan stratigraphy with his own planted fossils and fraudulent claims, which he published in 300 papers over 25 years, that others groan that the field may never recover, because it would take so much work to clean up the mess he made. That was one charlatan with a good act. Bergman also discusses problems with peer review and the question of whether science is self-correcting.
Update 1/22/21: Science Magazine reports shamefacedly that two “Disgraced COVID-19 studies are still routinely cited.” A search revealed that 52% of more than 200 subsequent papers citing the retracted papers in the New England Journal of Medicine and The Lancet that caused academic embarrassment last year (4 June 2020) cited them without mentioning their status as retracted. Many of the papers leaned on the retracted papers for support of their own ideas. “Thousands of news articles, tweets, and scholarly commentaries highlighted the scandal, yet many researchers apparently failed to notice,” Science notes, pointing out the carelessness of many scientists and of their peer reviewers and journal editors.
Ivan Oransky, co-founder of the website Retraction Watch, says such blunders occur because “people are either willfully or negligently not checking references.” Many authors copy and paste lists of apparently relevant citations from similar papers without actually reading them, he says. “It’s frightening. It’s terrible, but common.”
Because of its prestige, there is a huge racket for fake-science publishing. We at CEH have witnessed some of it, with unsolicited emails asking us to write papers for predatory journals. These typically have dozens of journal “titles” that they invite us to write for so that they can make money off us, without regard to any expertise in the advertised subjects. They could be sending the same email to some Joe off the street.
Not infrequently, CEH encounters emails from bots asking to write articles for our website. The bot, imitating some person with a name and a polite manner, can find some keyword in our articles and offer to write about it or ask us to link to their website. These could be techniques to insert malware. Having dealt with Darwinist propaganda for so many years, we know better, and such missives are hastily junked. How many other people are aware of the risks? How many young scientists know?
This article is a reminder that science is always mediated by fallible humans. Science is not some mechanical method of generating knowledge. Everything from idea to print passes through choices made by individuals, not all of whom have reputable character. Every scientist must obey the Biblical commandment, “Thou shalt not bear false witness.”