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Governing knowledge in the scientific community: Exploring the role of retractions in biomedicine


  • Furman, Jeffrey L.
  • Jensen, Kyle
  • Murray, Fiona


Although the validity of knowledge is critical to scientific progress, substantial concerns exist regarding the governance of knowledge production. While research errors are as relevant to the knowledge economy as defects are to the manufacturing economy, mechanisms to identify and signal “defective” or false knowledge are poorly understood. In this paper, we investigate one such institution – the system of scientific retractions. We analyze the universe of peer-reviewed scientific articles retracted from the biomedical literature between 1972–2006 and comparing with a matched control sample in order to identify the correlates, timing, and causal impact of scientific retractions. This effort provides insight into the workings of a distributed, peer-based system for the governance of validity in scientific knowledge. Our findings suggest that attention is a key predictor of retraction – retracted articles arise most frequently among highly-cited articles. The retraction system is expeditious in uncovering knowledge that is ever determined to be false (the mean time to retraction is less than two years) and democratic (retraction is not systematically affected by author prominence). Lastly, retraction causes an immediate, severe, and long-lived decline in future citations. Conditional on the obvious limitation that we cannot measure the absolute amount of false science in circulation, these results support the view that distributed governance systems can be designed to uncover false knowledge relatively swiftly and to mitigate the costs that false knowledge for future generations of producers.

Suggested Citation

  • Furman, Jeffrey L. & Jensen, Kyle & Murray, Fiona, 2012. "Governing knowledge in the scientific community: Exploring the role of retractions in biomedicine," Research Policy, Elsevier, vol. 41(2), pages 276-290.
  • Handle: RePEc:eee:respol:v:41:y:2012:i:2:p:276-290 DOI: 10.1016/j.respol.2011.11.001

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    References listed on IDEAS

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    Cited by:

    1. repec:bla:jecsur:v:31:y:2017:i:1:p:326-342 is not listed on IDEAS
    2. Michael A. Clemens, 2017. "The Meaning Of Failed Replications: A Review And Proposal," Journal of Economic Surveys, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 31(1), pages 326-342, February.
    3. repec:spr:scient:v:113:y:2017:i:1:d:10.1007_s11192-017-2242-0 is not listed on IDEAS
    4. Frank Mueller-Langer & Benedikt Fecher & Dietmar Harhoff & Gert G. Wagner, 2017. "The Economics of Replication," Discussion Papers of DIW Berlin 1640, DIW Berlin, German Institute for Economic Research.
    5. Pierre Azoulay & Jeffrey L. Furman & Joshua L. Krieger & Fiona E. Murray, 2012. "Retractions," NBER Working Papers 18499, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    6. Tartari, Valentina & Perkmann, Markus & Salter, Ammon, 2014. "In good company: The influence of peers on industry engagement by academic scientists," Research Policy, Elsevier, vol. 43(7), pages 1189-1203.
    7. David Pontille & Didier Torny, 2013. "Behind the scenes of scientific articles: defining categories of fraud and regulating cases," CSI Working Papers Series 031, Centre de Sociologie de l'Innovation (CSI), Mines ParisTech.
    8. repec:eee:respol:v:46:y:2017:i:9:p:1552-1569 is not listed on IDEAS


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