Like many people who view themselves as objective and rational (which is, what, everybody?), I've always placed great trust in science. And for good reason. Science is all about facts. Science is about a quest for the truth. Science is about pure knowledge. Sadly, one cannot say the same for some scientists. While I'm absolutely confident that the vast majority of scientists respect their profession and are dedicated to its ideals, some just aren't. A new study published by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) makes this painfully clear. Researchers did an analysis of 2,047 papers listed as retracted by PubMed, a free database of references and abstracts on biomedical and life sciences topics maintained by the U.S. National Library of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health. The researchers, from the University of Washington, the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University in New York and science consulting firm MediCC!, went back as far as 1977. What they found was depressing: * 67.4% of retractions "were attributable to misconduct" * Of those, 43.4% were due to "fraud or suspected fraud," with 14.2% attributable to duplicate publication and 9.8% due to plagiarism. * Only 21.3% of the retractions were based on error by the paper's authors Here's the worst part, as PNAS writes: "The percentage of scientific articles retracted because of fraud has increased more than 10-fold since 1975." Scientific American blogger Ashutosh Jogalekar breaks down the numbers in a sobering bar graph. While the graph doesn't include specific numbers, it shows that: * Retractions based on fraud or suspected fraud were exceedingly rare from 1977 through 1996, totaling slightly more than 100. That's 100 in 20 years. From 2002 to 2006, fraud-based retractions numbered around 150, or more in those four years than in the two decades starting in 1977. Then things get crazy. From 2007 through 2011, more than 400 papers were retracted based on fraud or suspected fraud. And those are just fraud-based retractions. Plagiarism and duplicate publication barely existed (at least in terms of retractions) through 2001. Since then, they also have skyrocketed. About 75% of the fraud and suspected fraud retractions came from the U.S., Germany, China and Japan, with China and Japan leading the way in plagiarism and duplication. So what's behind the explosion of fraudulent research? The simple answer is flawed human beings. More specifically, it's a combination of familiar factors that cause people to lie and cheat: Pressure, greed and ego. Jogalekar writes:
Biomedical research is likely going to continue to invite fraud because of its sheer and growing complexity. In addition the monetary benefits, fame and visibility associated with potentially important results in fields like caloric restriction are immense, leading to even more opportunities for fraud and wishful thinking.However, the emphasis on biomedical research should not blind us to the greater problem the journal points to; the pervasive culture of publish-or-perish and grantsmanship that often views research as a zero-sum game. Science has very much turned into a high-stakes competitive business. More than ever, researchers are competing against each other for funding, resources, grants and publicity.
One unanswered question is what percentage of published papers have been retracted in the time frame studied. I would hope and expect that it's a tiny fraction. Still, the trend is troubling doesn't bode well for the reputation of scientific inquiry or its ability to positively shape social policy. It hands a potent weapon to malevolent skeptics and deniers who seek to discredit legitimate scientific findings for their own selfish or greedy purposes. And that's not good for the rest of us. Now read this: