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Professional Impact of a Retraction

DANIEL BUENOWhat happens to the reputation of researchers when one of their articles is retracted by the scientific journal that published it? It is expected that they will receive fewer citations, but the extent of damage to their reputations depends on the status of the scientist and the reason the article was retracted, according to a study by economists Pierre Azoulay, Alessandro Bonatti and Joshua Lev Krieger from the Sloan School of Management, affiliated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). “Eminent scientists are more harshly penalized than their less well known colleagues, but that happens only in cases of fraud or misconduct. When the retraction was caused by unintentional errors, the stigma is less and the status of the researcher doesn’t make any difference,” Azoulay says. The study found that the average decline in number of citations of articles after a retraction is 10%. But it can rise to 20% when research group leaders are accused of misconduct. These findings were published in May 2015 by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), in the United States.

The trio of economists was interested in investigating how scandals affect the scientific community’s trust in the individuals involved, a topic on which there is very little information. According to the authors, the perception of scientists who commit errors or missteps enabled them to analyze that phenomenon empirically. To reach their conclusions, they identified 878 articles from the biomedical field that had been retracted between 1980 and 2009. Among those responsible for those articles were 376 researchers based in the United States about which the team obtained data, such as the number of citations of their other works over time. For purposes of comparison, data were compiled for a control group of 759 authors in the same field whose articles had not been retracted.

The findings of the study by the MIT economists appear to be at odds with the results reported in an earlier NBER document, produced in 2013 by researchers from the universities of Maryland and Rochester and the Kellogg School of Management, which analyzed the impact of the retraction of an article on its various co-authors. That paper showed that senior researchers, the ones whose names usually appear last on the list of authors, suffer little and survive the cancellation of an article while the younger researchers, like those whose names appear first on the list as principal authors, may even lose their position in the research group in the wake of a scandal involving fraud, plagiarism, or falsification. “It is important to note that we compared researchers who belonged to different groups, while the other project analyzed the impact of retractions within groups,” Azoulay, Bonatti, and Krieger wrote.