Have you heard the “Retraction” episode of This American Life? Last month, the show formally retracted an episode on working conditions in the Foxconn electronics factory in Shenzhen, China. Ira Glass’ discussion of truthful reporting made me think about retractions in scientific publishing. As a medical librarian, I frequently send published research articles to my patrons. Sometimes I wonder, will these findings ever be replicated? Will they be retracted? Will I even notice? Will my users?
In many cases, published retractions are noted in the databases that scientists and science librarians use every day. Yet just as many people skim past the advanced options in a search engine, it’s easy to miss the small print “Erratum” beneath the article title. So what role can librarians play in following-up on published research? I’m not sure I have a definite answer, but I have identified some useful resources to help librarians keep tabs on what happens after studies have been published.
Most of the librarians I know have more responsibilities than time, and I don’t exactly have a ton of spare time during an average day at work, So if librarians are going to follow-up on published research, it’s essential to find efficient methods for doing so. One helpful and interesting resource is the blog Retraction Watch. The authors, both medical journalists, report the latest news on studies that have been questioned or retracted. They focus mainly on the life sciences, so health and other life sciences librarians might find this blog particularly useful.
As I mentioned earlier, the National Library of Medicine’s biomedical database Pubmed is a useful resource for identifying retracted papers. NLM has a clear policy for handling corrections, retractions, and republished articles. While medical librarians are most likely familiar with how corrections are displayed in Pubmed records, these examples might be worth a look for librarians who only occasionally handle science-related reference questions. And although I value Pubmed as an essential resource, I appreciate the clear and obvious manner with which Wiley identified this particular retraction. Perhaps using bold, all-caps statements like would be a better approach to help users easily identify questionable research!
Beyond formal retractions, reading high-quality research blogs can serve as a useful supplement to reading published studies. Research Blogging and Scientopia are two of my favorites. Research Blogging links to blog posts discussing academic studies across all disciplines, including the social sciences and humanities. Scientopia is home to blogs from scientists and graduate students in a variety of fields. These blogs tend to be pretty humorous, as well as frequently featuring discussions of published research.
These resources are just a few tools for following the conversation that occurs after a study is published. I would love to hear more suggestions in the comments!