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Analysis of Highly Cited Retracted Paper on Vaccinations and Autism Shows Authors Have Trouble Citing Retractions

Milwaukee, Nov. 15, 2019 – A study published today in the online medical journal JAMA Network Open shows that despite complete retraction, a 1998 article that purported to show an association between the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine and autism continues to be cited in scholarly works and was the ninth-most cited scholarly publication indexed on the topic of autism.

The six researchers from southeastern Wisconsin health science libraries reviewed more than one thousand English language, scholarly book chapters and articles from peer-reviewed publications that cited the 1998 article by Wakefield et al that claimed to show a link between the vaccine and autism. This study was partially retracted in 2004 and completely retracted in 2010, yet it continues to be cited in scholarly works.

The investigators examined the context of how scholarly authors cited the study by Wakefield et al and how, if at all, the retracted status of the study was identified in the work or reference list. The librarians’ analysis found that most authors cited the Wakefield et al article in a negative manner, meaning they disputed or questioned the study, and several citing works failed to identify the study’s retraction.

“Our findings demonstrate that a high citation count for a study does not necessarily mean high quality work, and that failing to note if a cited study has been retracted can leave readers with a misperception that the data and conclusions found in the retracted paper are valid,” said lead author Elizabeth Suelzer, MLIS, AHIP, from the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW) Libraries. “Our investigation uncovered significant obstacles that may contribute to the problem of authors failing to identify retracted works in their bibliographies. Ultimately, each author is responsible for accurately noting a retracted article in their references, but improvements can be made by publishers, bibliographic databases and citation management software to facilitate the recognition and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 are Suelzer; Karen L. Hanus, MLIS, AHIP; Rita Sieracki, MLS and Elizabeth Witkowski, MILS from MCW, Jennifer Deal, MA, MLIS from Advocate Aurora Health and Barbara E. Ruggeri, MLIS, AHIP from Carroll University.

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