A new study has found that a clinical trial report was still being cited some 11 years after it was retracted, in a worrying trend which pervades scientific publishing and risks eroding public confidence in research.
Jodi Schneider, a professor of information sciences at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, found that not only was the retracted paper still widely cited years later, but the number of citations it received actually went up following its retraction.
The paper in question erroneously found that omega-3 fatty acids can be helpful in reducing inflammatory markers in patients being treated for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Originally published in 2005, the paper was retracted in 2008 for reporting on falsified clinical trial data.
According to Schneider’s research, there were some 148 direct citations of the paper in follow-up research between 2006 and 2019, with an additional 2,542 second-generation citations. Worryingly, the retraction went undisclosed in 96 percent of the post-retraction direct citations.
Papers and studies can be retracted for research that is erroneous, poorly conducted or fraudulent in nature – and they are surprisingly common, Schnieder says, estimating there may be roughly four retractions per 10,000 publications.
However, despite their apparent contravention of good scientific principles, these papers can continue to be cited in further academic work for years after they are retracted, polluting the information ecosystem within scientific research and academia more broadly.
Schneider found that many journals don’t compare the citations and references in new research against databases of retracted pieces, while notices of retraction can often be hard to find.
Disparities in sites reporting retractions also complicates matters, as papers are often republished in several places at once, not all of whom follow the same policy of informing the public when a scientific paper has been retracted.
In addition, just 10 percent of retraction notices mention the reason why the study was unpublished, so the notices risk being ignored as trivial.
In the case of the omega-3 study Schneider highlighted, it was the first purported random clinical trial on the specific topic, and would therefore have been highly useful for follow-up research, had it been properly executed.
To make matters worse, the retraction process can be lengthy and may require multiple investigations which take additional time, all while additional research which may cite the original, contentious work is being carried out.
Schneider called for the establishment of a convention within the scientific and research communities on how to flag that an article that has been retracted through the development of a standard set of metadata, to avoid erroneous or retracted research from forming the basis of future work.
Schneider concluded that ensuring retracted articles don’t linger and pollute the information ecosystem is important for maintaining both scientific rigor and public confidence in scientific research.
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