“Widely cited study of fake news retracted by researchers”

Chuck Jackson forwards this amusing story:

Last year, a study was published in the Journal of Human Behavior, explaining why fake news goes viral on social media. The study itself went viral, being covered by dozens of news outlets. But now, it turns out there was an error in the researchers’ analysis that invalidates their initial conclusion, and the study has been retracted.

The study sought to determine the role of short attention spans and information overload in the spread of fake news. To do this, researchers compared the empirical data from social networking sites that show that fake news is just as likely to be shared as real news — a fact that Filippo Menczer, a professor of informatics and computer science at Indiana University and a co-author of the study, stresses to Rolling Stone is still definitely true — to a simplified model they created of a social media site where they could control for various factors.

Because of an error in processing their findings, their results showed that the simplified model was able to reproduce the real-life numbers, determining that people spread fake news because of their short attention spans and not necessarily, for example, because of foreign bots promoting particular stories. Last spring, the researchers discovered the error when they tried to reproduce their results and found that while attention span and information overload did impact how fake news spread through their model network, they didn’t impact it quite enough to account for the comparative rates at which real and fake news spread in real life. They alerted the journal right away, and the journal deliberated for almost a year whether to issue a correction or a retraction, before finally deciding on Monday to retract the article.

“For me, it’s very embarrassing, but errors occur and of course when we find them we have to correct them,” Menczer tells Rolling Stone. “The results of our paper show that in fact the low attention span does play a role in the spread of low-quality information, but to say that something plays a role is not the same as saying that it’s enough to fully explain why something happens. It’s one of many factors.”…

As Jackson puts it, the story makes the journal look bad but the authors look good. Indeed, there’s nothing so horrible about getting a paper retracted. Mistakes happen.

I’m on the editorial board of a journal that had published a paper with serious errors. There was a discussion among the board of whether to retract the paper. One of the other board members did not want to retract, on the grounds that he (the board member) did not see deliberate research misconduct, that this just seemed like incredibly sloppy work. The board member was under the opinion that deliberate misconduct “is basically the only reason to force a retraction of an article (see COPE guideline).”

COPE is the Committee on Publication Ethics. I looked up the COPE guidelines and found this:

Journal editors should consider retracting a publication if:

• they have clear evidence that the findings are unreliable, either as a result of misconduct (e.g. data fabrication) or honest error (e.g. miscalculation or experimental error) . . .

So, no, the COPE guidelines do not require misconduct for a retraction. Honest error is enough. The key is that the findings are unreliable.

I shared this information with the editorial board but they still did not want to retract.

I don’t see why retraction should be a career-altering, or career-damaging, move—except to the very minor extent that it damages your career by making that one paper no longer count.

That said, I don’t care at all whether a paper is “retracted” or merely “corrected” (which I’ve done for 4 of my published papers).