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Delete It! The Growing Problem of Research Retractions

Research retractions grow each year
Written by Sarah Friedman

Research retractions are on the rise, with almost 5,500 in 2022, up from 40 in 2000. Be careful what you read!

Research results are often the cornerstone of state and federal policy. Beyond that, they often inform our decisions personally when it comes to many different aspects of life. So its more than a little concerning that there’s an increasing problem with the growing number of research retractions.

What’s a research retraction?

Research is published all the time, and on practically any topic imaginable. In this publication, we focus on research pertaining to drugs; like how they work, how people feel about them, the laws around them, or their danger level. This can include topics like clinical trials for a new drug, cohort studies to examine behaviors over time, and assessments of multiple studies within a topic to see consistencies and deviations.

When a research study is completed, the authors generally want attention and recognition. They want their findings known, and their reputations heightened. Similarly, publications also want positive exposure by having cutting-edge stories. So researchers hand off their final product to some publication in their field, and these publications offer exposure. This gets writers like me to cover the research with a great headline; which theoretically, helps both the writer and the publication.

However, sometimes after publication, the results are questioned. This happens because of honest and unintentional mistakes; as well as cutting corners, and outright result flubbing. This puts both researcher and publication in an uncomfortable position. If there is enough debate, the reaction is negative enough, or a court order forces it; a piece of research is retracted. The publication takes it down, the findings are considered null and void, and the retraction becomes part of the author’s (and publication’s) history.

There were nearly 5,500 research retractions last year
There were nearly 5,500 research retractions last year

A retraction means there was a fatal flaw in research. Something that indicates the results are incorrect, or could be. It means whatever information the study provided, is not only questionable, but deemed unworthy for human consumption. Studies often reference each other, and when one is retracted, it affects the papers that reference it. This can undermine the work of good researchers, especially in situations of retractions due to bad behavior. It’s no wonder that retractions act as a sort of stigma. Fellow researchers might be less likely to reference your findings if you have a history of retractions.

Retractions are made all the time outside of the research world as well. News publications often must make them when they flub a story, pharmaceutical companies often recall medications, and statements made by public figures are sometimes retracted; though this obviously doesn’t mean that we ever un-hear or un-know things.

Writing on bad research stories

As a writer who constantly evaluates research, I am sometimes amazed, and often dismayed, at the amount of awful research out there. This creates a situation in which its wildly difficult to understand what is actually going on. Journalists can be just as bad as the research they cover; and at times nearly every relevant publication in a field, is passing on the same bad study results. And none of them question anything.

News and opinions are different things. Some argue that an opinion should never be in a news story at all. I tend to think this is only partly true. I believe writers should have a level of understanding that allows them to point out information that does not make sense. This means not passing things on without an explanation if there are inconsistencies or problems, but it also doesn’t mean the writer should push their own opinion on anyone. A writer can pose a question to their audience, or bring up an issue.

Something like: ‘in my opinion as a drugs writer, I’m uncertain this study makes sense because of…” This introduces a problem, whether an opinion is stated or not. Isn’t this what we should do? Isn’t it odd to think someone covering a story, passes on words without thinking about them? Isn’t that just as bad as the scientific publications and corner-cutting researchers? I’m not saying any writer should pass on their opinion as anything more than that, or even give one if there is no reason. But to bypass inconsistencies? That’s not news reporting at all.

An example of a study that I believe needs retraction, is this one that attempted to make the case that cannabis increases risk of heart attacks. Why? It 100% did not control for the act of smoking. All participants smoked the cannabis; as investigators only looked at medical files of those who did. Yet they never brought up that smoking raises the risk of heart attacks. It’s incomprehensible to me that the study was published, or that so many writers blindly covered it. It’s a lower-than entry level mistake/super wily move. And it exemplifies that not everything that needs a retraction, gets one.

Cannabis study tried to tie the drug to heart attacks, while ignoring smoking
Cannabis study tried to tie the drug to heart attacks, while ignoring smoking

The growing problem of research retractions

A recently published article by the Guardian takes on this topic of research retractions. According to the article, in 2022 alone, there were almost 5,500 research retractions. The article points out that this is a drop in the bucket, accounting for only 1 in 1,000 research papers. Even so, as a comparison, there were only 40 retractions in 2000. That’s a pretty big difference.

Does every bad article get retracted? Unfortunately not. Not only do publications back up their published research in order to maintain their own reputations, but they’ll often wage court battles on detractors. They infrequently win (its hard to prove slander when you can’t back up your own point), but the monetary cost of such a suit to the challenger, often isn’t worth it. In that way, some publications function like big pharma, essentially silencing those who question the machine.

Is the near 5,500 retractions adequate? Some estimate that closer to 100,000 pieces of research should be retracted yearly, while others put the number even higher. The Guardian has been tracking these retractions since 2010, via its watchdog site, and also believes (according to the article) that retraction numbers are lower than they should be. According to the publication, the flawed research that spawns many of these retractions, is found via:

“sleuthing, largely by volunteers who comb academic literature for anomalies, and, second, major publishers’ (belated) recognition that their business models have made them susceptible to paper mills – scientific chop shops that sell everything from authorships to entire manuscripts to researchers who need to publish lest they perish.”

The author explains further, “These researchers are required – sometimes in stark terms – to publish papers in order to earn and keep jobs or to be promoted. The governments of some countries have even offered cash bonuses for publishing in certain journals. Any surprise, then, that some scientists cheat?”

Bad research hurts people

Research often informs policy, it leads to treatment options, and it helps people make personal decisions. So bad research can impact these things negatively. Do you want the treatment option of someone who put out faulty research? The Guardian article mentioned one of the most ridiculous examples of this, and it’s a good one to share further because it so greatly exemplifies why this is a problem.

Bad research led to damage from a blood alternative
Bad research led to damage from a blood alternative

The case has to do with German anesthesiologist Joachim Boldt. Boldt created a blood substitute that was used all over Europe, due to his many, many research studies that showed it helped keep blood pressure consistent, while oxygenating cells. Between 1990-2009, Boldt published 186 papers that subsequently had to be retracted. He purposefully flubbed his results. In fact, it was found that his product was significantly related to acute kidney problems and increased risk of death. Quite the opposite of life-saving. Some of his papers weren’t retracted until a decade after his fraud came to light.

Other times, fake research used to sway opinions and inform policy is also damaging in another way. Think of sick people that need medicine, like kids. Think of sick kids. And then remember that if the government outlaws something like weed, because it says that medical research shows it to be dangerous; those kids don’t get the medicine. Even now, with the massive amount of positive research out there, sick kids are constantly still denied cannabis medicines, all over the world.

Plus, it can lead to bad personal choices. Think of the US government’s take on nutritional information. The food pyramid is still one of the biggest jokes out there; yet it was taught in classes around the country. I was taught about it in my high school health class. The new version isn’t much better, and still doesn’t resonate with the world of actual nutrition. It’s constantly spoken of as being the result of lobbying by industries, with little-to-no concern for consumer health at all.

Neither the old, nor the revised version, will likely help people truly trying to establish healthy eating patterns; and nor will the countless awful chemicals that the US allows in food. Think of that contradiction for a second. A government that talks like it cares, while undermining the health of its residents with chemicals so bad they’re not allowed in food products in other countries. It’s hard to trust the nutritional information that comes from the same country that sees fit to allow such poisons in food, or the research which supposedly supports it.


I talk all the time about bad research, smear campaigns, and the lack of integrity in both the research world and the reporting world. The Guardian article quite unfortunately backs up that this is a major issue, and it isn’t getting any better. At this rate, in a few years from now, we’ll have headlines telling us that the latest research backs up that walking into traffic is a good way to spend the afternoon.

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About the author

Sarah Friedman

I look stuff up and and write stuff down, in order to make sense of the world around. And I travel a lot too.