04 October 2012

Fraud In Published Scientific Papers Rises Dramatically

Supports Chapter One: Trick to Treat

In the first chapter of Trick and Treat, I outlined the vast amount of fraud, ghost-writing, and spin that was to be found in medical journals' articles. 

I wrote that in 2008. As this article from Medical News Today, Weekly Newsletter - 3 October 2012, points out, little has changed. In fact the problem might well be getting worse.

Article Date: 02 Oct 2012 - 12:00 PDT

Fraud, suspected fraud, plagiarism and duplicate publications are the main reasons why scientific papers are retracted today, researchers from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine reported in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) today.

Misconduct occurs at ten times the rate it used to in 1975 among scientific papers - scientific papers refers to articles that are published in academic journals. Two thirds of all retractions today are due to misconduct.

Senior author Arturo Casadevall, M.D., Ph.D., the Leo and Julia Forchheimer Chair and professor of microbiology & immunology and professor of medicine at Einstein, and also editor-in-chief of mBio said:
"Biomedical research has become a winner-take-all game-one with perverse incentives that entice scientists to cut corners and, in some instances, falsify data or commit other acts of misconduct."
A survey carried out by the BMJ (British Medical Journal) in January 2012 revealed that 13% of doctors and scientists had seen colleagues deliberately fabricate or change data during their research to make sure that it was published.

The authors examined 2,047 articles that had been retracted from biomedical literature up to the end of May 2012. They had set out to find out why retractions occur. They consulted several secondary sources, including the NIH (National Institutes of Health, the Office of Research Integrity, as well as Retractionwatch.com.

The authors found that:
21% of retractions were due to mistakes (error)

67% of retractions were due to misconduct, which was broken down as:
   - fraud or suspected fraud 43%
   - duplicate publication 14%
   - plagiarism 10%
   - unknown or "miscellaneous" reasons 12%

The problem with very skillful fraud, Dr. Casadevall said, is that it is hard to discover. There are probably several fraudulent papers still published and not retracted because misconduct has not yet been detected.

The authors explained that previous studies that underestimated the extent of scientific misconduct had relied completely on notices of retraction issued by the journal, which are written by the authors of the papers themselves.

Dr. Casadevall said:
"Many of those notices are wrong. Authors commonly write, 'We regret we have to retract our paper because the work is not reproducible,' which is not exactly a lie. The work indeed was not reproducible - because it was fraudulent. Researchers try to protect their labs and their reputations, and these retractions are written in such a way that you often don't know what really happened."
The report showed that higher-impact factor journals seem to have especially high retraction rates. Dr. Casadevall said that today scientists are disproportionately rewarded for publishing lots of papers, which should ideally appear in prestigious journals - most likely this kind of pressure has contributed to the growing number of retractions.

Dr. Casadevall said:
"Particularly if you get your papers accepted in certain journals, you're much more likely to get recognition, grants, prizes and better jobs or promotions. Scientists are human, and some of them will succumb to this pressure, especially when there's so much competition for funding. Perhaps our most telling finding is what happened after 2005, which is when the number of retractions began to skyrocket. That's exactly when NIH funding began to get very tight."
Dr. Casadevall had put forward a number of solutions to address the problem of scientific misconduct in the journal Infection and Immunity, which included:
  • There should be more emphasis on the quality of publications rather than how many are published
  • When rating journals, there should not be so much emphasis on impact measures
  • The research community should aim for more cooperation and collaboration
  • More sustainable, stable and reliable resources for research funding should be developed
  • Career pathways should offer scientists more flexibility to make sure talented professionals are not loss due to poor funding
Retractions come from very few laboratories

The authors stressed that not all is gloom and doom. Dr. Casadevall explained that 38 laboratories accounted for 43% of all retractions last year. There are thousands and thousands of labs whose scientists publish articles in academic journals.

Dr. Casadevall said:
"So while we're not looking at a systemic disease, so to speak, in the scientific community, our findings do indicate a significant problem that needs to be addressed."