For retractions, cause shapes effect

Pierre Azoulay
Pierre Azoulay

Nonprofit National Bureau of Economic Research—the organization that officially declares the stop and start of recessions—has issued a report that adds another angle to the recent data about journal retraction rates. In addition to looking at why scientific articles are retracted and how often this happens, they broadened the conversation to include the fallout in terms of citations, dollars and the course of research itself.

MIT's Pierre Azoulay, along with three other researchers including Boston University's Jeffrey Furman, wrote the report, which noted the collateral damage—lost citations —was “more severe when the associated source article was retracted because of fraud or misconduct, relative to cases where the retraction occurred because of ‘honest mistakes.'” They also found a guilt-by-association spillover, and that fraud retraction triggered a 5.45% decline in citations of articles with a similar bent. The degree of citation falloff depended on how suspect the data is, i.e. if some of the research couldn't be duplicated, the article's citation rate still dipped, but to a lesser degree than an article tainted by fraudulent research. The researchers also found a public-private fallout divide, and said that for-profit researchers are less likely to penalize related articles than academic researchers.

The authors said the difference hinges, in part, on whether or not the scandalized topic still has enough commercial promise and said there “is empirical evidence to claim that retractions lead to underinvestment in the affected fields.” They also found that “the funding response is always larger in magnitude than the publication response,” i.e. the more severe the infraction, the “fewer papers being published in these fields and also less funding available to write such papers.”

At the same time, there is a degree of peer pressure, and the authors wrote that scientists are sensitive to bad data and that part of the pullback in research is also linked to “concern their peers will hold them in lower esteem if they remain within an intellectual field whose reputation has been tarnished by retractions.”
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