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The career effects of scandal

Sandro CastelliA group of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University measured the damage that an article retraction causes to the reputation of its authors. According to a paper published in the journal Research Policy, one year after a retraction, the expected citation rate of other papers published by the same authors falls by an average of 10%. If an article was clearly retracted due to misconduct rather than a mistake, the citation rate can drop by as much as 20%, especially for renowned researchers with a high output.

“The question we’re asking is: do retractions trigger, at an individual level, something like an infection mechanism, where the retracted author is being punished and discredited for being dishonest or incompetent?” said Alessandro Bonatti, an associate professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, who coauthored the paper with Pierre Azoulay, from MIT, and Joshua Krieger, from the Harvard Business School. “We find that yes, there is such a mechanism in place, and it operates through citations,” he concludes. According to Bonatti, the scientific community reevaluates its perception of a researcher after an episode of retraction, citing their previous papers less often in new articles.

The MIT and Harvard team analyzed the scientific output of 376 American researchers who published life sciences articles between 1977 and 2007 that were later retracted. Their performance, in terms of citations, was compared to that of a control group of 759 researchers whose work had not been retracted and who had published articles in the same journals where the retraction events occurred. While the number of times a scientific article is cited naturally declines as time passes, the study showed that after a retraction, other articles by the same researchers suffered an additional 10% decrease in citations on top of the normal reduction. The paper, published in Research Policy, used the same database as a 2014 study by the same group, which showed that scandals caused by retractions negatively impact articles on related topics, even when they were written by other authors (see Pesquisa FAPESP, issue No. 202).

Scientific article
AZOULAY, P. et al. The career effects of scandal: Evidence from scientific retractions. Research Policy. V. 46, No. 9, pp. 1552–69. Nov. 2017.