Too Many Scientific Articles End Up Retracted
The number of scientific publications has increased exponentially over the past 50 years. Unfortunately, too many of those articles end up retracted. “This topic has remained under-recognized by the scientific community for a long time, despite the detrimental impact it has on the generation of evidence-based knowledge,” says Mario F.L. Gaudino, MD, an attending cardiac surgeon at Weill Cornell Medicine.
Gaudino and colleagues analyzed trends and characteristics of articles retracted from 1971-2020.1 “While analyses of retractions in non-biomedical fields have been published, a comprehensive analysis of retractions in the biomedical literature did not exist,” Gaudino explains.
Gaudino and colleagues sought to identify characteristics of retracted articles on which the peer review process should focus. In the five decades studied, more than 5,000 papers were retracted. Almost 9% of the retractions were meta-analyses or reviews. “This raises some concerns, as these study designs are in a high position on the level of evidence pyramid,” Gaudino offers.
Guidelines only represented a small percentage of total retractions (0.3%). Scientific misconduct (including data fabrication, plagiarism, and duplication) was found in 62.3% of retracted studies. The number of retractions and misconducts increased from 1980 to 2014, but declined after 2015. The median time from publication to retraction significantly decreased over the study period. The median impact factor of the journals that published retracted articles decreased as well. “This may be the result of increased efficacy of the peer review process,” Gaudino suggests.
Each retraction was cited nine times on average. A few retractions were cited more than 100 times. “More attention while indexing the retraction notices is necessary to avoid this dangerous issue,” Gaudino says.
Retractions of problematic manuscripts aim to preserve the integrity of the scientific literature. However, retractions rarely receive as much coverage as the initial publication. Problematic data might be included in subsequent meta-analyses and reviews. “This is particularly concerning in the biomedical field in which unreliable studies may have a negative effect on patients’ care,” Gaudino warns.
The fact there are fewer retractions in recent years, and shorter time frames between publication and retraction, and less impact factor in journals that publish retracted articles is “encouraging,” according to Katia Audisio, MD, another of the study’s authors and a fellow in the department of cardiothoracic surgery at Weill Cornell. “This improvement is likely multifactorial and related to an increased attention on this subject.”
The Committee on Publication Ethics presented recommendations to editors on how to deal with unreliable studies. Committees such as the European Science Foundation and the U.S. Office of Research Integrity are scrutinizing published evidence. Editors and reviewers are improving the quality of the peer review process. “While this is promising, the number of citations of retracted articles is still too high,” Audisio says.
The authors want to see standardized processes after retraction, and proactive approaches to prevent errors that lead to retraction. “Incentives to report misconduct and standardize the process to detect incorrect data should be adopted to prevent future erroneous and potentially harmful findings,” Audisio argues.
The rapid and extensive dissemination of information online has dramatically affected the progress of scientific research, with findings readily available on virtually any topic almost instantaneously — even prior to peer review, says Paul A. Kurlansky, MD, another of the study’s authors and associate director of the Columbia University Center for Innovation and Outcomes Research.
Research findings that are questionable or false may have slipped into the scientific literature. “It can be extremely difficult to detect data that have been manufactured or manipulated. Occasionally, a percentage — we can never know how great a percentage — of these reports are identified and result in article retraction,” Kurlansky laments.
However, those problematic articles might have been referenced in other papers or included in meta-analyses. “Vigilance and critical thinking on the part of researchers is the key to maintaining scientific integrity,” Kurlansky says.
Consider two key questions: Are data consistent with what has been shown elsewhere? Did a laboratory or clinician report a high volume of findings that appear to be unique and/or not reproducible? “When performing literature reviews and/or meta-analyses, a paper or series of papers that appear to be in contrast with the rest may need to be checked for possible retraction or questionable results,” Kurlansky advises.
Studies are retracted for all kinds of reasons. “However, two main buckets the reasons can be placed in are honest error and fraud or misconduct,” says Hallie Kassan, MS, CIP, director of the IRB at the Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research in Manhasset, NY.
Examples of misconduct that can lead to retraction include fake peer review, fake data, or image manipulation. Before approving a study, IRBs must determine if risks to subjects are minimized by use of procedures consistent with sound scientific design. When reviewing studies, IRBs should assess protocols to assure their eligibility criteria are reasonable, and that protocols are designed in a way to collect the data needed to answer the research question. Finally, IRBs can use a biostatistician as a reviewer.
“This assures the statistical analysis plan is designed to support the hypothesis to assure sound scientific design,” Kassan adds.
- Gaudino M, Robinson NB, Audisio K, et al. Trends and characteristics of retracted articles in the biomedical literature, 1971 to 2020. JAMA Intern Med 2021;181:1118-1121.
Over five decades, the authors of a meta-analysis discovered guidelines represented a small percentage of total retractions (0.3%). Scientific misconduct (including data fabrication, plagiarism, and duplication) was found in 62.3% of retracted studies. The number of retractions and misconducts increased from 1980 to 2014, but declined after 2015. The median time from publication to retraction significantly decreased over the study period.
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