Science: misinformation and the role of social media


Medical laboratory scientist at the bench with micropipettes. — Courtesy of the US National Institutes of Health (public domain)

Scientific articles are subject to rigorous peer review. However, there are times when it later turns out that the research was flawed, and the normal course of action is for the research paper to be retracted. This removes the research from the public domain, keeping everyone away from the general public, professionals and researchers from erroneous conclusions.

In practice, the process of removing erroneous searches may not be fast enough, according to a new study. The discovery comes from Northwestern University and the University of Michigan and the researchers put forward the idea that the delay in retraction poses a risk of spreading misinformation. The issue must also be considered in the context of the large number – increase significantly – research articles published each year.

One of the reasons for this is that the articles that are subsequently taken down are often widely distributed online. This goes through traditional media and social networks. Sometimes information sharing happens before the document is taken down and by then any takedown of the document is too late – it has already filtered into the public consciousness. It also happens that a lot of people don’t hear about retraction.

It also sometimes happens that the articles and research that end up getting the most attention are the ones that are later retracted. A typical example is the various health and diet stories, which are sometimes based on erroneous results.

This is taken up by Ágnes Horvátassistant professor of communications and computer science at Northwestern, who says, “Social media and even major news outlets — the most prestigious places that cover science — are more apt to talk about stories that end up being retracted. .

These occasions, especially with wilder research claims, tend to have broader and lasting impacts. Another area where this has happened is misinformation around vaccines, which can have real impacts in terms of vaccine hesitancy.

In addition to being a vehicle for spreading incorrect information, social media can also provide a way to slow down, or at least flag, slices of incorrect information. Here, researchers examine Twitter and the role the microblogging site could potentially play in providing early signals of questionable research.

The researcher drew on data compiled by the Retraction Watch and Altmetric websites and used the databases to compare the online fingerprints of 2,830 retracted items to those of 13,599 unretracted items. Each of the articles had similar publication locations, dates, author counts, and author citation counts for a tracking period that extended for at least six months after publication and after retraction.

This revealed that articles that were subsequently taken down tended to have a significantly higher number of initial mentions on forums such as major social media platforms, online news sites, blogs and knowledge repositories. like Wikipedia versus articles that have never been removed. This is a factor in the novelty of many of the findings.

The research (in the research paper question) appears in the newspaper Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The article is titled “Dynamics of cross-platform attention to retracted articles”.


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