The Importance Of Government Databases Retracting Information: A Scholar’s Perspective


Science retractions are often seen in a negative light, signaling errors, flaws in the review process, or embarrassment for the institutions involved. However, retractions can also be viewed as a positive aspect of science, as they demonstrate the process of finding and correcting errors, and publicly acknowledging incorrect information.

While retractions in scientific journals are common, there is a more concerning issue when it comes to information that cannot be retracted. Many seemingly authoritative sources contain flawed data, both intentionally and unintentionally. This issue is particularly prevalent in government information, which is often considered a reliable source but is prone to errors and lacks retraction mechanisms.

One example of this problem is found in patents, which contain technical details that can be valuable to scientists. However, patents cannot be retracted, even if they contain errors. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office allows patentees to include fictional experiments and data in their patents, known as prophetic examples. Shockingly, around 25% of life sciences patents contain fictional experiments. This practice is confusing to nonspecialists, who may mistakenly assume that the information presented is based on real experiments.

A striking case highlighting the consequences of inaccurate government information involves Dr. Hwang Woo-suk, who gained recognition for his breakthrough discovery of cloned human embryos in 2004. The discovery turned out to be fabricated, and the journal article was retracted. However, Dr. Hwang received a U.S. patent on his retracted discovery years later, with no investigation into its accuracy. Similarly, Elizabeth Holmes, the former CEO of Theranos, holds patents for her discredited claims, despite the company’s fraud being widely exposed.

These examples demonstrate the need for retraction mechanisms in government databases. Without retractions, incorrect information can continue to spread and mislead readers. In a study of patent-paper pairs, it was found that citations to retracted journal articles significantly decreased after retractions were made public. However, there was no reduction in citations to patents containing the same incorrect information, as patents lack the prominent retraction notices found in scientific journals.

This issue extends beyond patents. Authoritative-looking information known to be wrong is disseminated by governmental organizations, such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration. Emissions data provided by companies and posted by the EPA are not reviewed by the agency, and the FDA shares information about drugs generated by manufacturers without conducting its own evaluation. This lack of oversight allows incorrect information to be circulated unchecked.

Furthermore, the economic consequences of incorrect information can be substantial. The FDA publishes a list of patents covering brand-name drugs, which generic drug manufacturers must navigate before gaining approval. However, this list is created by brand-name drug manufacturers, who may include patents that do not actually cover their drugs. There are limited mechanisms for other parties to contest the inclusion of a patent on the list, leading to increased burdens for generic drug manufacturers.

Even when retractions are possible, their effectiveness is dependent on readers paying attention to them. In the realm of financial data, revisions and retractions may occur, but they often go unnoticed or are not timely, failing to impact markets and decision-making processes.

To combat misinformation, it is crucial for trusted data sources, especially government databases, to implement retraction mechanisms similar to those employed by scientific journals. This would ensure that erroneous information can be corrected and prevent its proliferation.

1. Source: Coherent Market Insights, Public sources, Desk research
2. We have leveraged AI tools to mine information and compile it