Misconduct, not error, accounts for most scientific paper retractions, new study finds

October 1, 2012, Albert Einstein College of Medicine

In sharp contrast to previous studies suggesting that errors account for the majority of retracted scientific papers, a new analysis—the most comprehensive of its kind—has found that misconduct is responsible for two-thirds of all retractions. In the paper, misconduct included fraud or suspected fraud, duplicate publication and plagiarism. The paper's findings show as a percentage of all scientific articles published, retractions for fraud or suspected fraud have increased 10-fold since 1975. The study, from a collaboration between three scientists including one at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University, published online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

" 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," said senior author Arturo Casadevall, M.D., Ph.D. , the Leo and Julia Forchheimer Chair and professor of & immunology and professor of medicine at Einstein. Dr. Casadevall is also editor-in-chief of the journal mBio.

The study reviewed 2,047 papers retracted from the biomedical literature through May 2012. To determine the reasons for the retractions, the researchers consulted several secondary sources, such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Office of Research Integrity and Retractionwatch.com, which investigate scientific misconduct.

The researchers found that about 21 percent of the retractions were attributable to error, while 67 percent were due to misconduct, including fraud or suspected fraud (43 percent), duplicate publication (14 percent), and (10 percent). Miscellaneous or unknown reasons accounted for the remaining 12 percent.

"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 Dr. Casadevall.

Earlier studies that underestimated the extent of scientific misconduct relied solely on the journals' retraction notices, which are written by the papers' authors, according to Dr. Casadevall. "Many of those notices are wrong," he said. "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 PNAS study also found that journals with higher impact factors (a measure of a publication's influence in scientific circles) had especially high rates of retractions. Dr. Casadevall attributes the growing number of retracted papers to the prevailing culture in science, which disproportionately rewards scientists for publishing large numbers of papers and getting them published in prestigious journals.

"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," he said. "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."

In a recent article in Infection and Immunity, Dr. Casadevall proposed various solutions to the problem of scientific misconduct, including:

  • more emphasis on the quality of publications rather than quantity
  • less emphasis on impact measures when rating journals
  • fostering a cooperative and collaborative culture in the research community
  • developing more stable and sustainable sources of research funding.
  • creating more flexible career pathways to prevent the ongoing loss of capable scientists due to inadequate funding
The retraction study's findings weren't all gloom and doom. "There is a very optimistic piece of data in the ," noted Dr. Casadevall: 43 percent of all retractions came from just 38 of the thousands of labs worldwide. "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."

Explore further: Facts in scientific drug literature may not be, study finds

More information: The PNAS paper is titled, "Misconduct accounts for the majority of retracted scientific publications."

Related Stories

Facts in scientific drug literature may not be, study finds

May 30, 2012

(Medical Xpress) -- A growing concern with fraud and misconduct in published drug studies has led researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Center for Pharmacoeconomic Research to investigate the extent ...

Has modern science become dysfunctional?

March 27, 2012

The recent explosion in the number of retractions in scientific journals is just the tip of the iceberg and a symptom of a greater dysfunction that has been evolving the world of biomedical research say the editors-in-chief ...

Scientists resolve to crack down on fraud

December 10, 2008

Public confidence in the honesty of scientists is being harmed by a small minority of researchers who behave badly, a conference heard last week. European research organisations agreed to work more closely to tackle the problem ...

Feds: Ex-Harvard prof faked data in experiments

September 5, 2012

(AP)—Federal investigators have found that a Harvard University psychology professor who resigned after being accused of scientific misconduct fabricated data and manipulated results in experiments.

Recommended for you

Two new planets discovered using artificial intelligence

March 26, 2019

Astronomers at The University of Texas at Austin, in partnership with Google, have used artificial intelligence (AI) to uncover two more hidden planets in the Kepler space telescope archive. The technique shows promise for ...

Infertility's roots in DNA packaging

March 26, 2019

Pathological infertility is a condition affecting roughly 7 percent of human males, and among those afflicted, 10 to 15 percent are thought to have a genetic cause. However, pinpointing the precise genes responsible for the ...

Facebook is free, but should it count toward GDP anyway?

March 26, 2019

For several decades, gross domestic product (GDP), a sum of the value of purchased goods, has been a ubiquitous yardstick of economic activity. More recently, some observers have suggested that GDP falls short because it ...

Droughts could hit aging power plants hard

March 26, 2019

Older power plants with once-through cooling systems generate about a third of all U.S. electricity, but their future generating capacity will be undercut by droughts and rising water temperatures linked to climate change. ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

2.7 / 5 (7) Oct 01, 2012
This article's author states: "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 Dr. Casadevall.

-- So I've noticed. And that includes NIH-funded junk articles, as well. It also sometimes means a co-conspiracy when "peer-reviewed" articles with bogus evidence slip by. A clue is to follow the un-acknowledged conflicts of the authors of the bogus articles. You have to dig deep sometimes, but other times the conflicts are right out there on the surface, like when a dog food company underwrites the professorial chair held by the author of a study of dog food.
5 / 5 (3) Oct 01, 2012
I would like to see the list of the 38 "scumbag" labs.
2.8 / 5 (4) Oct 01, 2012
43 percent of all retractions came from just 38 of the thousands of labs worldwide

It sounds like they know who the culprits are, now it is just a matter of reprimanding them and ensuring this does not keep happening. That is just disgusting, 38 loser labs are creating half of the useless/detrimental papers submitted in total (from the study).
3.8 / 5 (6) Oct 01, 2012
There's been a constant drumbeat of fraudulent biomed studies for years now. No doubt the tight competition for money (potentially BIG money), and fame tempts some of these guys to the dark side.

To some degree, the same can be said for current climate research scene - no matter where the truth lies re the cause of GW, there seems to be a lot of crappy science being done.
2.6 / 5 (10) Oct 01, 2012
The scientific community is overgrown remnant of Cold war era, when the scientists were appreciated as the potential developers of new weapons and war technologies. Michio Kaku expressed it already better than me. Now the world gets poorer because of ignorance of cold fusion finding and the scientists are becoming redundant servants, who served well their purpose and now they have no usage. Not surprisingly it leads into huge pressure inside of community of scientists. It's estimated, the contemporary scientists spend over forty percent of their research time just with collecting of money for another funding... and money collection. Despite of it, they ignore the cold fusion research as a single man, which leads into vicious circle: the scientists have no money and their stance leads them into deeper separation from the interests of the rest of society.
3.3 / 5 (7) Oct 01, 2012
We should realize, the investments into science as a whole don't stagnate - what is increasing rapidly is the number or persons employed in science. Main source of overeployment are universities, which developed a Ponzi scheme of academic jobs. The number of publications grows exponentially and the publications are becoming increasingly trivial - under such a situation the more people can find holes in internal feedback process for comfortable life.
2.3 / 5 (6) Oct 01, 2012
We should realize, the investments into science as a whole don't stagnate - what is increasing rapidly is the number or persons employed in science. Main source of overeployment are universities, which http://www.ericga...ic-jobs/ - under such a situation the more people can find holes in internal feedback process for comfortable life.

This is exactly what I was thinking. It's turned into another easy coasting lifestyle, and all they have to do is suck up to the government to increase their funding.

It's not just the field that they mention either, I see it happening in every field. Once one of these guy's get's their tenure they essentially disappear from the actual work and merely "Manage" the department. I saw this when going for my BS in Physics, the Ph.D.'s were never around, even when they were supposed to be there. They all drove rather nice cars and had nice McMansion's though.

4 / 5 (2) Oct 01, 2012
Oh, are there "Easy coasting lifestyle's"?
Raising money is a hard thing to do.
Hey, who in the "government" do I need to suck up to? I'm sure I can fake some believable crap if you can just give me a few emails.
I might even slip by a few truly worthwhile things in between cocktail parties.
I might even think about buying some kind of car.
Try managing a physics department someday.
3 / 5 (4) Oct 02, 2012
I see it happening in every field

No you don't because you don't work in the field. Certainly not science.

They all drove rather nice cars and had nice McMansion's though.

Total BS. PhD students are vastly underpaid - and there is no way you can make a decent living off the type of 'salary' you get during your PhD-time.

The reason why you never saw them around was that they worked nights and weekends (when the processing power is not hogged by students). The other reason is that students go to classes - PhD students don't. They are holed up in their cubicles/labs. There's no reason why you should see a PhD student around at all as a regular student. They live and work in an entirely separate world.
2 / 5 (4) Oct 02, 2012
An article like this needs to briefly mention that the percentage of fraudulent articles is still a very tiny fraction of the total articles out there, lest someone read this summary and think that that medicine is untrustworthy. And you know, someone will do exactly that.
3 / 5 (6) Oct 02, 2012
You're not required to be a broody hen for being able to recognize an aged egg.

No. But youre required to know something about eggs.
There's plenty of armchair coaches - but they don't know diddly-squat about sports.
Telling someone so is not 'elitism'. That's just calling someone on it when they're pulling 'facts' out of their behind.

You're not required to be a scientist for being able to recognize the misconduct and rotten science.

To discover a fraudulent publication you have to understand about the subject. So yes: to recognize the misconduct in a scientific paper you must be a scientist.
To SPECULATE about the misconduct you need not be.
But speculation doesn't get results - much like armchair-coaches never make a team win.
3.7 / 5 (6) Oct 02, 2012
Many mistakes of mainstream science are based on very trivial logical flaws

Most (if not all) such statements by laymen are based on the misunderstanding of the intricacies of scientific theories.

These mistakes can be usually recognized with lack of underlying logics and good sense even with laymans.

If you don't bother to get a deep understanding of the matter at hand then don't be surprised if people laugh at your 'uncovering of flaws' as childish drivel.

Laymen (and yourself) are like this guy:
(hint: hover the mouse over the picture for an additional apt comparison to yourself)

So it's evident, this research is simply ignored

No. It's evident that people who are (objectively) morons think they are (subjectively) geniuses.

1 / 5 (1) Oct 02, 2012
In my theory this trend of retractions and frauds is of objective geometrical nature, because the deterministic character of contemporary science changes with increasing scope of human understanding. The classical water surface analogy will illustrate it again. The human observers do perceive the Universe like its most stationary ripples at the 2 cm dimensional scale. With increasing distance from this scale the character of ripples becomes pronouncedly transverse of longitudinal, which enables the development of formal physics based on quantum mechanics and relativity theories. These theories are valid up to dimensional scale, where the subjects remain spherical and symmetrical. But when the human experience expands even more, these two perspectives will get blurred again and the existing formal methods required for their description will not work anymore. The future is in emergent hyperdimensional understanding of reality, which is difficult to grasp with contemporary generation.
5 / 5 (1) Oct 04, 2012
You cannot change the rules of chess game, or it wouldn't be a chess game anymore...

Guess again. The rules of chess have ben changed many times in the past.

But I see your point and you are wrong, there, too (as always). Science is not a closed system and the laws/rules aren't tautological. There are many competing theories for any field you care to name and the idea of scince is to find out which one is the best for a given state of knowledge/observation - and to figure out how to design future experiments so as to delineate between theories which currently match all observations.

The people like you are really believing, that the reality is driven with rules

You really have no clue about science, do you? Science is not about finding laws that drive reality. We KNOW there are no such laws. Laws are models. Laws are stuff that is useful. That's what scince is about.

You're searching for 'truth'. That's not science. That's theology.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.