It’s often hard to get scientific journals to retract papers. When retractions do happen, it’s often years after the paper was first published.* And even after papers are retracted, many of them still get cited, even years after they’re retracted. All of which has led to numerous calls to speed up the process. As the argument goes, think of all the damage that retracted papers do to the progress of science before they’re retracted, and even after. Think of all the researchers who waste time, effort, and money going down the blind alleys that now-retracted papers steered them into. Think of all the follow-up papers that are invalidated, because they were built on the shaky foundations of now-retracted work. And think of all the pointless grant proposals that never would’ve been written, if only proposal authors had known that their proposals were based on unreliable results.
Frustration with the difficulty and speed of the retraction process is understandable and often justified.** It’s a problem. But I think we can be more precise about the problem–about its scale, and about who is primarily affected. So I decided to compile a bit of data.
I compiled data on two now-retracted papers by Jonathan Pruitt: Pruitt & Pinter-Wollman 2015 Proc B***, and Pruitt et al. 2013 Animal Behav. I chose those papers haphazardly. I picked them because I think they represent something close to a worst-case scenario: papers by a prominent author, published in leading journals, that went several years from publication to retraction, that are among a number of papers by the same author that have recently been retracted or subjected to Expressions of Concern. But I doubt my broad conclusions are sensitive to my choice of paper.**** For each of the two papers, I skimmed all the papers that cited it (according to Web of Knowledge), looking at who cited it and how it was cited. For instance, was it cited by Jonathan Pruitt, one of his collaborators, or someone with no connection to him? And was it cited merely in passing, or cited in such a way that its retraction would completely invalidate the citing paper, or what?
*Though the average time to retraction is dropping; see data summarized here.
**Though occasionally it does remind me of unreasonable complaints about the speed of the peer review process.
***Technically, this paper is subject to an Expression of Concern, and an “author removal correction“: Noa Pinter-Wollman has removed her name from the paper because she no longer considers the results reliable. My own view is that this is functionally equivalent to a retraction. And I think it should and will be treated as functionally equivalent to a retraction by the vast majority of scientists. So I’m going to just refer to this paper as “retracted”.
****Note that, for purposes of this post, it doesn’t matter why those papers were retracted, merely that they were retracted.