By Michael Seadle, published on 2 May 2018
Justice is often slow. Articles with integrity problems can stay in print without any warning label for years. Chen (2013) wrote:
“We found that it takes about 2 years, on average, to retract an article and another 2 years to see a substantial decrease of citations to the retracted article.”
Two years may well even underestimate the time to retraction, since the accusation often triggers formal investigations at universities and at journals, before either institution is ready to take action. As soon as an accusation becomes public, the press typically pushes for swift action, and university authorities typically want to make the problem go away, without much concern for the assumption of innocence that is part of democratic justice systems. One of the constant themes of this column is that integrity problems are sometimes more complex than the accusations imply. Nonetheless two years is a long time, during which ideas can become easily established.
From a journal perspective, the commercial value of an article declines sharply two years after publication, though value over time varies greatly with the field: humanities articles generally have a longer half-life than articles in the natural sciences or medicine. Most researchers in most fields will have read an article before two years are up, if it is at all relevant to their work. This means that an article that a publisher has retracted after two years has already exhausted a significant part of its commercial value and is intellectually present in the minds of the scholarly community. Two years more for a decrease in citations is hardly surprising, since scholars who read a paper are unlikely to go back to read it again. Likely they have a digital copy or a paper copy and work from that for their own new article.
Authors may also ignore a retraction for a variety of reasons that may depend on the reason for the retraction. As Madlock-Brown and Eichmann (2015) wrote:
“There are many reasons articles may be retracted, some more problematic than others.“
A work that was retracted for plagiarism, for example, may still contain worthwhile information, despite the ethical and copyright violations. Readers may also discount retractions for procedural or peer review issues. Self-citation plays a role too.
“18% of authors self-cite retracted work post retraction with only 10% of those authors also citing the retraction notice.” (Madlock-Brown & Eichmann, 2015)
What exactly authors are citing from their own retracted paper may matter. It is not quite fair to assume that everything in a paper is contaminated because of a retraction. The degree to which an integrity violation in one part of a paper affects others may depend on the field. A humanities paper may, for example, draw multiple conclusions, only one of which the retraction affects. The assumption that everything in a retracted paper is flawed is part of the black-or-white thinking that currently pervades the integrity literature.
The interesting question is whether the flawed portions of a retracted work, especially faked or manipulated data, continues in the minds of scholars after the integrity violation is discovered and established beyond reasonable doubt. Greitemeyer (2014) writes:
“… numerous studies have shown that corrections do not work as intended, in that individuals are influenced in their later judgments by misinformation even after correction. For instance, Loftus (1979) found that after witnessing an event, exposure to misleading information makes a person often report something that was only suggested. This phenomenon has been labeled the misinformation effect…“
In some ways this is not surprising. If the original article made a clear and cogent argument that seemed on the face of it to be reasonable, a memory of and even a belief in the argument may persist.
“Once a belief is formed, people generate explanations that fit the evidence. These explanations continue to imply that the belief is correct even after exposure to evidence that invalidates the evidence once used to support one’s belief.” (Greitemeyer, 2014)
An interesting example can be found in the retracted study by Diederik Stapel where he asks travelers to choose a chair next to a Dutch-African or a Dutch-Caucasian (Stapel & Lindenberg, 2011). The data may have been fake, but the conclusion felt so plausible that it remained in the minds of many. Indeed, this reference to a retracted work is an example of why such citations may take place.
The good news is that researchers who are accused and exonerated may not suffer long term damage to their reputation. Greitemeyer and Sagioglou (2015) writes:
“The present research suggests that people do abandon their attitude toward an accused researcher after learning that the researcher has been exonerated. In both studies, participants in the exoneration condition had a more favorable attitude toward the researcher than participants in the uncorrected accusation condition. Moreover, in the exoneration condition, participants’ post-exoneration attitude was more favorable than their pre-exoneration attitude.“
This should be a comforting thought to those who are exonerated, but those cases seem to be rare. Interestingly enough Greitemeyer and Sagioglou (2015) begin with the example discussed in last week’s column, and note: “…it is important to keep in mind that the LOWI concluded that it cannot be determined whether Förster had manipulated the data.” Thus far he has not been exonerated and may well have given up hope. For others it may offer a grain of comfort after a time of stress.
Ms. Vera Hillebrand (MA) suggested the topic and the title. She also provided most of the references.
Chen, Chaomei, Zhigang Hu, Jared Milbank, and Timothy Schultz. 2013. “A Visual Analytic Study of Retracted Articles in Scientific Literature.” Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 64 (2): 234–53. Available online.
Greitemeyer, Tobias. “Article retracted, but the message lives on.” Psychonomic bulletin & review 21, no. 2 (2014): 557-561. Available online.
Greitemeyer, Tobias and Sagioglou, Christina. 2015. “Does Exonerating an Accused Researcher Restore the Researcher’s Credibility?” PloS One 10 (5). Available online.
Madlock-Brown, C.R. & Eichmann, D. 2015. “The (Lack of) Impact of Retraction on Citation Networks.” Sci Eng Ethics 21 (127). Available online.
Stapel, Diederik A, and Siegwart Lindenberg. 2011. “Coping with Chaos: How Disordered Contexts Promote Stereotyping and Discrimination.” Science 332 (6026): 251–253. Available online.
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