How well do databases and journals indicate retractions? Hint: Inconsistently.

Elizabeth SuelzerRetraction Watch readers might recall Elizabeth Suelzer's work as a librarian at Medical College of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. She and her colleagues published two years ago a study that examined why Andrew Wakefield's 1998 fraudulent paper, which claimed a link between vaccines and autism, had been cited over 1,000 times. Suelzer writes in the Q&A below that this work led to additional questions about the accuracy of bibliographic databases and journal publishers displaying retraction status when necessary. Their findings were published in JAMA Network Open this Week. They found that they were inconsistent.Retraction Watch (RW: Why did you do this study?)Elizabeth Suelzer (ES), I published a 2019 study that examined citations to Andrew Wakefield's famously retracted article that claimed to link MMR vaccines with autism. My coauthors, and I, discovered that not all citation references pointed to the Wakefield article being retracted. Also, we noticed that some citations to the Wakefield article had a prefix of Retracted before the article title. Others did not. We discovered that Web of Science displayed the article title as "RETRACTED: Ileal lymphoid-nodular Hyperplasia, Non-Specific Colitis, and Pervasive Development Disorder in Children" (Retracted article). Vol. 375, pg. 445, 2010, while PubMed shows it as Ileal lymphoid-nodular hypoplasia, pervasive developmental disorder, and non-specific colitis in children (Retracted article). We were interested to see how similar articles were retracted in different databases.As we were creating the study, we thought of investigating if journals consistently label retracted articles on their web pages. We are librarians, and our coauthors all access journal articles every day. This is why we understand the difficulties researchers face when navigating between different journals platforms. Sometimes, an article DOI is at the top of a page, while other times it appears somewhere else. We wanted to determine if journals display retraction information in a consistent way.RW: What did your research reveal?ES: We were shocked at the variation in the way retractions were labelled in citation databases when we reviewed the results of the investigation. PubMed was used as the standard for how retractions should appear in citation databases. PubMed is widely available and easily accessible. It does a great job showing articles that have been retracted. It was not surprising that PubMed, the only free database in the set, had the best overall performance.It was also quite surprising to see the websites of journals. Our analysis revealed that only 39 journals displayed retractions on their websites. 31 journals posted retraction information on PDFs. There were differences in the way the retraction information displayed. Retraction labels could be in different colors or in different places. Some articles didn't even have retraction labels. Although researchers may be used to searching for important notifications or retraction information in one location on a webpage, these notices can appear in many places.RW: Could you please explain why the public website produced the best results and subscription websites had less accuracy?ES: It is not clear why PubMed was able to document retractions more effectively than the subscription databases. PubMed made retraction information more easily visible on their platform in 2016. It is not clear if PubMed's actions in 2016 were inspired by user input or if they wanted to solve the problem. Whatever the reason, this article shows that certain users are more informed about retractions of articles than others depending on what resources they have.Institutions that purchase subscription databases should reach out to vendors to let them understand that they expect better output or that their output is comparable to what PubMed can provide.RW: What's the point?ES: Citations to retracted literature that are not acknowledged or inadvertent have been a problem for many years. It can also have adverse effects on public health. Teixeira da Silva and Dobrnszki give a succinct summary of the problem in their blog post. Citing retracted literature can have a negative impact on science, education and society. It can confuse and mislead students as well as established scientists about the validity of scientific claims.It shouldn't be difficult to determine if a paper is being retracted. However, we found that researchers might need to search the platforms for retraction information. This assumes they are able to do so. Inconsistent or inaccurately displayed information on journals publishers and database vendors can hinder scientific progress.Authors are ultimately responsible for ensuring that they do not accidentally cite retracted literature. Journal publishers, however, have the responsibility to make sure that any article they retract is clearly and prominently marked on their website in all formats (HTML or PDF). Incorporating publisher updates promptly into their databases is another way database vendors can ensure accurate records.RW: Zotero, which was recommended by you in a tweet and Redaktek which you also mentioned, have integrated our database to alert users about any retractions of papers in their libraries. What if all the websites and databases that you had identified problems did the exact same?ES: Our research has shown that database vendors and journal publishers are not always correctly displaying retraction information on their websites. Anything that can be done is recommended. Retraction Watch was successfully implemented in Zotero. It has alerted to me to retracted publications that I have not otherwise noticed. Researchers can benefit greatly from these alerts. It will save them the embarrassment and awkwardness of accidentally citing a retracted paper. Researchers will appreciate having more information about retracted literature. Retraction Watch will allow readers to see in real time if an article has been removed.You like Retraction Watch? To support our work, you can follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook. You can also subscribe to our daily digest or add us to your RSS reader. You can tell us if you find a retraction not listed in our database. Email us at with any feedback or comments.This is what you can do: EmailFacebookTwitter