Retracted papers continue to circulate on social media, spreading misinformation

We should all be diligent about vetting the research we share — here's how

Photo by Prateek Katyal on Unsplash 

What happens when a scientific paper is found to be fraudulent, plagiarized, or unreliable? After a potentially lengthy investigative process, the paper will be officially retracted and the journal will write a retraction notice to let readers know why the paper has been pulled. But retractions don’t make a paper disappear altogether. Retracted papers continue to get cited, spreading misinformation through the scientific literature.  

Now, a new study by a group of Stanford University researchers published in PLoS ONE suggests that the attention retracted papers receive from news sites and social media is problematic as well. They found that popular articles, defined as those with an Altmetric attention score of more than 20, “receive substantially more attention than their retraction notice.”  And it gets worse: The researchers found that the attention popular articles receive after they are retracted “does not always reflect their retraction, but may perpetuate” the flawed science they contain.

This suggests that journalists and social media users, as well as scientists, need to be wary of retracted papers. Fortunately, there are tools that can help with this. For scientists the reference manager Zotero will flag retracted papers and warn you before you cite them, and for journalists or members of the public who don’t use a reference manager, searching for the title of the paper will let you know if it is problematic.