Long-retracted papers are still cited in major journals

The retraction crisis has morphed into a citation crisis.

Long-retracted papers are still cited in major journals
Credit: DC Studio via Adobe Stock
  • Even after scientific papers are retracted, hundreds of studies cite them as evidence.
  • Roughly four retractions occur per 10,000 publications, mostly in medicine, life sciences, and chemistry journals.
  • Journals should implement control measures that block the publication of papers that cite retracted papers.

Andrew Wakefield's 1998 study linking vaccines with autism was riddled with holes. All 12 children involved were handpicked, which is antithetical to clinical research. The now-deregistered physician falsified results. Wakefield used microscopic-level stains to make his case; a more reliable molecular method found no evidence of a link between vaccines and autism.

Add to this the fact that parents of study subjects, some with their own agendas (such as litigation), kept changing the timeline of their child's conditions. During all this time when Wakefield was raging against the vaccine, he filed for two patents on single measles shots. It was a money play from day one.

Twenty-three years later, the vaccine-autism myth remains in circulation despite decades of contrary evidence. Six years after the study was published, 10 of the 13 authors of their paper retracted their findings. It took The Lancet a few more years; in 2010 the publication finally retracted the paper. Journalist Brian Deer documented Wakefield's scam for years. Still, the lie persists.

Science's replication crisis is well-known. But the research community is suffering from another serious problem, one ill-fated for the social media age: the retraction crisis.

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As science journalist (and former marine biologist) Fanni Daniella Szakal recently pointed out, retracted papers are still being cited and used as gospel even when—sometimes it seems especially when—data are intentionally fabricated. Currently, roughly four retractions occur per 10,000 publications, with the highest percentages being in medicine, life sciences, and chemistry journals.

That overall number might not seem high yet those retracted studies have an outsized influence. Wakefield claiming the MMR vaccine causes autism as a ruse to patent his own vaccine is the most infamous example, but there are others.

  • A 2005 paper touting omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids as having anti-inflammatory effects was retracted in 2008 after it was discovered that one author intentionally falsified data. After 2008, however, 96 percent of papers that cited the study never mentioned that it had been retracted.
  • German anesthesiologist Joachim Boldt has a whopping 103 retractions credited to his name. Considered the greatest fraud in medicine since Wakefield, his studies, including influential work on the role of hydroxyethyl starch, continues to be cited today.
  • Two COVID-19 studies published in reputable journals were retracted after their findings were deemed to be suspect. The researchers relied on a combination of big data and AI to replace randomized controlled clinical trials, leading to false results. Still, the retracted papers were cited in other prestigious journals and have been, in part, seized upon by anti-vaxxers that point to a nefarious medical industry trying to confuse us with conflicting evidence.

​Gastroenterologist Dr Andrew Wakefield arrives with his wife Carmel flanked by supporters on July 16, 2007 in London, England.

Credit: Daniel Berehulak via Getty Images

As Szakal notes, a solid grasp of science matters considering research drives policy and healthcare decisions. We can't possibly expect every paper to get it right, but unfortunately, we also have to factor in biased researchers pushing forward their agendas. While the publication of such research is troublesome, Szakal takes particular issue with the authors and publications that continue to cite them after they've been retracted.

More than just a critique, however, Szakal suggests a path forward.

"In each and every publication, author guidelines should include that the author is needed to check all citations for possible retractions. Today numerous citation software are available to do this with ease; such as Zotero, scite.ai, and RedacTek alert users for any retracted papers in the reference list. As well as more care from authors, preventing post-retraction citations is a responsibility of publishers too. Along with double-checking the reference list of papers to be published, they should also make sure that retraction notices appear on all platforms where the study is available."

The past year has proven how dangerous scientific misinformation (and, even more disturbingly, disinformation) is to public health measures. The frantic urgency of social media platforms and the speed with which we consume headlines without reading articles makes teaching good science even more daunting. At the very least, we need the gatekeepers to take more responsibility for their publication process. Being the first to break bad science is way more socially damaging than being the tenth to publish science worth repeating.

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Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His most recent book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."

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