What does it mean if an article is retracted?

Screenshot of the Access Options panel in LibrarySearch. There is a button labelled 'retracted article'. Under that is linked text saying 'alternate links'

When searching on LibrarySearch and some of our other Library databases, or online, you may sometimes see a button or flag saying a journal article has been retracted.

What does that mean, and can you still refer to the article in your work?

If an article has been retracted, that means it has been withdrawn after being published in a journal. Either the article authors, or the editors of the journal have in effect declared that the article should never have been published in the first place.

There can be various reasons for this – Charlesworth Author Services provide a helpful and more detailed explanation – but they can include:

  • Honest mistakes made in the article which weren’t picked up at the time through the peer review process – eg errors in the authors’ data, or how they interpreted it
  • Plagiarism – someone discovers that the authors have copied from other published work
  • Ethical issues – eg a study with human or animal subjects didn’t get the correct ethical approval before it was carried out
  • Copyright issues – eg the authors included illustrations or photographs originally published elsewhere and didn’t get the original publisher’s permission for this first

Sometimes there will be a retraction notice which explains the reason. (You can see an example of a retraction notice here.)

Can I still use retracted articles in my work?

Ask yourself why you still want to use this research.  Knowing the article has been retracted effectively tells you that there is a big problem with it. If the problem was with the data or the conclusions, then the article doesn’t provide reliable evidence for the point you want to make. If you don’t know why it was retracted, you can’t take the risk.

If the authors made an honest error and have continued to research in this area, then there may be a later article by them updating their findings more accurately – see what else you can find.

If you are writing about the research publishing process, or you want to talk about controversies in research, or how findings can be disputed, then a retracted article might be useful evidence – but only if you show that you know it was retracted and explain why that fact supports your argument!

Referencing (citing) a retracted article using the Harvard style

As explained above, think very carefully first about why you are citing an article that has been retracted. However, if you need to do so (for example, because the fact it was retracted forms part of your argument) then both your in-text citation and your reference list should make clear that the paper was retracted; your reference list should include details of when and where the retraction notice was published. For example:

In text citation example:

Ricaurte et al (2002)’s retracted article on dopaminergic neurotoxicity in primates suggested that…

Reference list example:

Ricaurte, G. A.,  et al (2002) ‘Severe dopaminergic neurotoxicity in primates after a common recreational dose regimen of MDMA’. Science, 297, pp. 2260-2263. (Retraction published September 12, 2003, Science, 301, p. 1454)

— Hazel Rothera (Academic Liaison Team Leader)

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