Science is littered with zombie studies. Here’s how to stop their spread

Many people think of science as complete and objective. But the truth is, science continues to evolve and is full of mistakes. Since 1980, more than 40,000 scientific publications have been retracted. They either contained errors, were based on outdated knowledge or were outright frauds.

Identifying these inaccuracies is how science is supposed to work. Finding and correcting publications — and keeping the scholarly record up to date — is part of the process. Yet these zombie publications continue to be cited and used, unwittingly, to support new arguments.

Why? Almost always it’s because nobody noticed they had been retracted.

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That why I like to read …


Retraction is one mechanism, but there are many studies that have mistakes that invalidate part of the results, but not all (I know – I’ve written some of them). These are not generally retracted, and remain in the literature. One way to discover what subsequent papers have said about these studies is to look for references to them, and read those papers. If the original paper has never been cited, that won’t work.

I think people get overly alarmist about junk papers. Many of them are the result of pressures on the researchers (such as the insane requirement in China that to maintain a medical career you have to publish in the scientific literature). Most of the resulting junk papers go into junk journals that have no credibility, so the chance that they derail the course of the science is minimal.


It gets complicated. Wakefield’s infamous study was retracted for false claims about vaccines, but that wasn’t the entirety of the paper. Other portions of the paper might be legitimately cited.

I get an acknowledgement in the linked paper, but the bit I contributed was removed during revisions.


Maybe you can request retraction of the acknowledgment?

That’s actually a library science paper ABOUT citations to Wakefield, looking at others fields citing (in)appropriately. I appreciate the acknowledgement, even if I did end up going n the cutting room floor.

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