Bad science: the role of media coverage in retractions of journal articles

Bad science can be hard to eradicate. A recent example of well published, but fraudulent, Covid-19 research on hydroxychloroquine, the anti-malaria drug embraced by former President Donald Trump, remains heavily cited, despite being widely discredited. The fact that fraudulent work continues to be cited long after it has been debunked is of great concern, as it creates the potential for dissemination of misinformation within and outside academia.

In a moment where salience around the scientific process is at its highest, studying research visibility in the mass media is crucial. In new research, to be presented at the annual conference of the Royal Economic Society, Eleonora Alabrese from the University of Warwick and the QAPEC Research Centre looks at how media coverage can help the auto-correcting process of science.

Online visibility may affect the level of scrutiny from the scientific community or even inform previously unaware scientists that a retraction has occurred, leading to differential punishment. Research findings show that media presence strongly aggravates the reputational effects of a retraction:

  • Retracted articles experience 30% larger citation-losses in the presence of media coverage, and the remaining post-citations are often explicit in acknowledging that the paper is indeed retracted.
  • The aggravating effect of media coverage is observed only for hard sciences (e.g., health, physics), suggesting distinct publication practices, and different topic salience may influence the visibility of a retraction.

Research visibility can also influence the rate at which bad science gets uncovered. The research shows that:

  • While retractions are generally less common for newsworthy topics, unexpected media coverage leads to higher chances of a paper becoming discredited.
  • Academic journals that often publish newsworthy articles are also those where retractions appear faster.

While the media seems to help the scientific community, this could generate unintended consequences for the audience of the mainstream media: the general public. This research indeed shows that newspapers, as opposed to blogs, are more likely to advertise the publication of a paper, whereas blogs are more likely to inform about retractions. This lack of full information could influence public perceptions of scholars’ trustworthiness. Such unintended effects are therefore a fertile area for future research.

How was the research carried out?

The evidence combines data from the RetractionWatch repository of discredited research, together with data on research paper citations from Scopus and Scite.ai, while media coverage data are extracted from Altmetric.

To study the causal effect of media coverage on citations, the author compares discredited research that had gained online popularity (at the time of publication) to similar but never discredited research. This similar research best simulates the citation path retracted papers might have taken, absent the negative “shock” of retraction.

To investigate whether the media aids the discovery of retractions, words in research paper titles are used to retrieve the topics more likely to get media attention (e.g., climate, stem cells). This information is then used to isolate the effect of arguably unforeseeable media attention. As for the visibility of an academic journal, this is measured based on the average online attention gained by non-retracted papers published in it.

This is one of the first statistical studies to document how the media can influence scientists’ perceptions about the quality of research, shape different aspects of the retraction process, and ultimately reduce the amount of misinformation within academia.


Eleonora Alabrese

Email1 E.Alabrese@warwick.ac.uk

Email2 alabrese.eleonora@gmail.com

Webpage https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/economics/staff/ealabrese/

Twitter @EleAla

Notes to Editors:

The press release is highlighting research papers presented at the RES Annual Conference 2022 (#RES20220) for further information, please contact j.randalledwards@res.org.uk on 07970 201456 if you want the link to the full paper.

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