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RTI Research Spotlight: Librarian-Led Research Shows the Need to Reference Retraction Status in Articles

In an article recently published in JAMA Network Open, researchers found that there is need for greater diligence in ensuring that retracted articles are properly cited. Six librarians from southeastern Wisconsin collaborated on the study that reviewed scholarly works that cited the retracted 1998 article by Wakefield et al. that purported to show an association with the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism. The investigators examined the context of how scholarly authors cited the study by Wakefield et al., and they reviewed the citing works to determine if the retracted status of the Wakefield et al. study was identified in the work or in the reference list. The analysis found that citing authors characterized the study as mostly negative, demonstrating that a high citation count for a study does not necessarily mean high-quality work. In addition, the analysis found many citing works failed to identify the study’s retraction. This failure can leave readers with the misperception that the data and conclusions found in the retracted paper are valid.

In addition to the JAMA Network Open article, lead author Elizabeth Suelzer, AHIP, MCW Libraries, Medical College of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, was featured on Retraction Watch with more detail about what her team discovered and recommendations for working to minimize the lack of retraction notices in citation styles and citation management software.

“Our investigation uncovered significant obstacles that may contribute to the problem of authors failing to identify retracted works in their bibliographies,” Suelzer commented. “We found that different policies with bibliographic databases can make it challenging for authors to identify if articles they are citing may have been retracted. Many authors use software products to manage their references, but often this software may not be able to recognize the notice of retraction. Ultimately each author is responsible for accurately noting a retracted article in their references, but improvements can be made by publishers, bibliographic databases and citation management software to facilitate the recognition and documentation of retracted studies.”

The librarians who collaborated on this study with Suelzer are Karen L. Hanus, AHIP, MCW Libraries, Medical College of Wisconsin–Milwaukee; Rita Sieracki, Todd Wehr Library, Medical College of Wisconsin–Milwaukee; Elizabeth Witkowski, Medical College of Wisconsin Libraries, Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin–Milwaukee; Jennifer Deal, Resource Center Library, Advocate Aurora, Grafton, WI; and Barbara E. Ruggeri, AHIP, Carroll Library, Carroll University, Waukesha, WI.

Suelzer was an RTI fellow in the inaugural 2018 MLA Research Training Institute (RTI), and this project was the focus of her research.

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