by Sarah Kosofsky

Retractions occur when a scholarly article has been deemed untrustworthy or scientifically invalid.  Although rare, they do occur, and retracted articles have the potential for causing damage.

In Phil Davis’ study, “The persistence of error: a study of retracted articles on the Internet and in Personal Libraries” (which he also speaks about in The Scholarly Kitchen blog), Davis finds that many retracted articles are still unmarked as retracted in many databases and personal collections.  For 289 retracted articles, there were 321 copies that were publically accessible.  On average, personal Mendeley libraries contained records for 1,340 retracted articles (Davis).

Davis outlines why some retracted articles stay available: journals can be inconsistent in alerting readers to retractions, articles can exist in multiple versions, and scientists oftentimes rely on their own personal collections.  Although Davis does briefly mention that retracted articles can be harmful to the scientific community, he doesn’t mention how exactly they can cause damage.

If a research paper happens to cite a paper that has, unbeknownst to the new paper’s author, been retracted, the scientific validity of the new paper becomes affected by the failure of whatever journal initially published the eventually retracted article.  On a smaller scale, if a student’s paper has cited a retracted article that contains scientifically invalid information, they might suffer when turning in that paper to a professor.

What’s more is that if those who read a retracted article take that information to be trustworthy and scientifically valid (as most information in scientific journals actually is both trustworthy and scientifically valid), they might use the results and findings from the retracted articles in their work until it is checked by an outside source.  This has the potential for slowing down scientific progress.

From your experience, how do you see scientific journals deal with retracted articles?  If you think there could be improvements, what are some suggestions that you have?  Have you seen any consequences as the result of someone citing a retracted article in their research?