Monday, November 19, 2012

The Economics of Retractions

How much harm is created by "false science"? False science leads others scientists into spending effort, time, and resources on replicating fabricated results, cutting promising research short, and may "stifle the field".

New research by Azoulay, Furman, Krieger, and Murray, "Retractions", aims to quantify the impact of false science on other ("honest") research. Theirs is a tremendous data sifting job:

1. They identify retractions to be caused by standing on the "strong" or "shaky" shoulders (of giants), or the absence thereof. In other words, retractions that are caused by e.g., editorial mishaps, such as printing the same article twice ("strong"); retractions where part of the claims are unsubstantiated ("shaky"), or the almost 600 articles where all claims are false ("absent shoulders").

2. Using the medical PubMed database, they identify related articles through keywords and define a scientific field as the set of articles whose keywords overlap with the retracted articles.

3. By restricting the analysis to articles that were published before the retracted article, excluding articles by the authors involved in the retraction, they construct a treatment group of articles--a field--that were shocked by the retractions. Comparing their citations to articles of a "control group", consisting of articles in the same issues of the journals, they can estimate the causal impact of false articles on the field.

"findings show that scientific misconduct and mistakes, as signaled to the scientific community through retractions, cause a relative decline in the vitality of neighboring intellectual fields. These spillovers in intellectual space are significant in magnitude and persistent over time. In other words, there is clear evidence of negative spillovers in instances of "false science" to broader swaths of the intellectual field in which they take place."

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