What We Believe is the Truth: Retraction and Reference

this american life logoby Sarah Elichko

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!

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4 thoughts on “What We Believe is the Truth: Retraction and Reference

  1. Hi Sarah, great post! I’m glad to see librarians address retractions, it’s a messy situation and I don’t have any definite answers on the role librarians should play.

    PubMed and Medline are particularly useful because they provide a citation to the retraction statement (like you show in your example…though, for the sake of polemics, an erratum is not the same as a retraction), which not only alerts the reader that the article has been retracted but also where they can find it. I’m not a science librarian, so I don’t know how many researchers actually start with PubMed, but when you go straight to the databases, it’s not uncommon for vendors to provide no mention that an article has been retracted. I presented some research on retractions at ACRL last year , and one of the things we found was that far too many people cite retracted articles (and that the number of retractions is increasing almost exponentially).

    It’s easy to say that librarians should raise awareness of the issue, but I’m not exactly sure what that would look like or, as you mention, how we would incorporate that into our already packed schedules. I’m interested to hear what others have to say!

  2. Thanks for your comment – vacation got in the way of a prompt reply!

    My point had been to think about questioned publications more generally, not just retractions strictly speaking. Still, you’re right to highlight the difference between an erratum and a true retraction. Anyone interested in seeing actual retractions noted in Pubmed can look at these search results which show citations for the original papers that have been retracted, or these results, which show the published retractions themselves.

    At least from my perspective as a hospital librarian, most day-to-day clinical research (in medicine and to a lesser extent nursing) starts with Pubmed or Medline via a vendor such as Ovid. I’m a Pubmed fan, but now I’m curious to see how retractions and errata are noted in Medline.

    Thanks again for your comment, and for doing such interesting research on the incidence of retractions!
    -Sarah

    • Thanks for sharing you experience as a hospital librarian, it’s reassuring to hear that research by those who practice medicine starts with Pubmed or Medline – I think this is one of the more effective ways to catch faulty research.

      Hope your vacation was enjoyable!

  3. Pingback: Curiouser and Curiouser: What Caught Our Eyes Online This Week | Chasing Reference

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