Just in case you didn’t know, it’s not OK to cite a paper that has been formally retracted. While some papers are retracted for procedural reasons, retraction generally means that the data are unreliable and have been discredited.
The staff at Retraction Watch provide a valuable service by keeping close tabs on the papers that are pulled from the literature and maintaining a searchable database of those papers to help ensure that they are not cited.
But retracted papers are still cited. And every citation of a retracted paper gives credence and longevity to its false information. A case in point is the 1998 article by Wakefield et al that claimed a connection between vaccination and autism. According to Suelzer et al, “From the date of the partial retraction on March 4, 2004, to March 11, 2019, a total of 881 works were published that cited the article by Wakefield et al.”
The result has been well documented and is still playing out today.
Last year was a particularly fruitful retraction year, fueled by the number of COVID-related papers published worldwide. As of February 12, 2021, Retraction Watch had identified 70 COVID-related papers that have been retracted for data problems.
As the Wakefield paper demonstrates, bad data can have real-world consequences, and we saw some of these consequences with COVID retractions. High-profile NEJM and Lancet retractions featured data provided by the firm Surgisphere and—before retraction—led to the suspension of clinical trials on hydroxychloroquine.
Not getting as much press were the retractions of COVID-related papers such as these:
- “5G Technology and Induction of Coronavirus in Skin Cells” argued that “5G millimeter waves could be absorbed by dermatologic cells acting like antennas, transferred to other cells and play the main role in producing Coronaviruses in biological cells.”
- “Can Traditional Chinese Medicine Provide Insights Into Controlling the COVID-19 Pandemic: Serpentinization-Induced Lithospheric Long-Wavelength Magnetic Anomalies in Proterozoic Bedrocks in a Weakened Geomagnetic Field Mediate the Aberrant Transformation of Biogenic Molecules in COVID-19 Via Magnetic Catalysis” posited that “Nephrite-Jade amulets, a calcium-ferromagnesian silicate, may prevent COVID-19.”
While the hypotheses of these papers are amusing and hindsight makes it easy to dismiss them, the fact is that they were published and had the potential to cause harm.
The retraction flags at PubMed are prominent and impossible to miss. It’s important to heed them.
Note: Photo by Isidro Lam from FreeImages