About two-thirds of scientific papers in biomedical journals are retracted due to fraud, suspected fraud and plagiarism, says a new study.
The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed that there is almost a 10-fold increase in the number of papers retracted since the 1970s. The study was based on a review of 2,047 papers that were removed from various journals. Researchers analyzed the reasons why these studies were retracted.
They found that about 61 percent of the retractions were due to scientific misconduct like fraud, plagiarism or duplicate publication. About 21 percent were attributed to errors and another 12 percent for unknown reasons.
According to an article in Nature, the top 10 journals that have had the most number of retractions (due to fraud or suspected fraud) are also some of the most influential and respected journals like Science, Nature, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and Cell. Study authors say that the extent of misconduct may be under-reported in the scientific field because the researchers who remove their papers generally cite vague reasons for retractions.
"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," said Arturo Casadevall, MD, at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University.
Casadevall said that when funding becomes sparse, researchers tend to commit more fraud just to be in the competition.
"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," he said.
The study also found that most of the retractions, around 44 percent of them, came from just 38 labs of the thousands of labs in the world. "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," Casadevall said.
Authors from countries like United States and Germany were more likely to retract due to fraud, while plagiarism and duplication were the probable reasons for authors from countries like China and India retracting their papers.
In a recent article published in the journal Infection and Immunity, Casadevall and colleagues suggested some ways to tackle the problem of fraudulent scientific papers:
- Getting people to work together in the scientific community
- Having a more reliable and fixed source of funding.
- Giving more importance to quality of the work rather than quantity
- Creating flexible career opportunities for those in the science field so that good scientists don't get thrown away when there is a lack of funding.
"What's troubling is that the more skillful the fraud, the less likely that it will be discovered, so there likely are more fraudulent papers out there that haven't yet been detected and retracted," said Casadevall, who is also editor-in-chief of the journal mBio.