Sometimes Scientists Spread Misinformation

24 Aug

To err is human. Good scientists are aware of that, painfully so. The model scientist obsessively checks everything twice over and still keeps eyes peeled for loose ends. So it is a shock to learn that some of us are culpable for spreading misinformation.

Ken and I find that articles with serious errors, even articles based on fraudulent data, continue to be approvingly cited—cited without any mention of any concern—long after the problems have been publicized. Using a novel database of over 3,000 retracted articles and over 74,000 citations to these articles, we find that at least 31% of the citations to retracted articles happen a year after the publication of the retraction notice. And that over 90% of these citations are approving.

What gives our findings particular teeth is the role citations play in science. Many, if not most, claims in a scientific article rely on work done by others. And scientists use citations to back such claims. The readers rely on scientists to note any concerns that impinge on the underlying evidence for the claim. And when scientists cite problematic articles without noting any concerns they very plausibly misinform their readers.

Though 74,000 is a large enough number to be deeply concerning, retractions are relatively infrequent. And that may lead some people to discount these results. Retractions may be infrequent but citations to retracted articles post-retraction are extremely revealing. Retractions are a low-low bar. Retractions are often a result of convincing evidence of serious malpractice, generally fraud or serious error. Anything else, for example, a serious error in data analysis, is usually allowed to self-correct. And if scientists are approvingly citing retracted articles after they have been retracted, it means that they have failed to hurdle the low-low bar. Such failure suggests a broader malaise.

To investigate the broader malaise, Ken and I exploited data from an article published in Nature that notes a statistical error in a series of articles published in prominent journals. Once again, we find that approving citations to erroneous articles persist after the error has been publicized. After the error has been publicized, the rate of citation to erroneous articles is, if anything, higher, and 98% of the citations are approving.

In all, it seems, we are failing.