The Growing Problem of Scientific Fraud

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Source: Christian Science Monitor

More published research papers – the currency of a career in science – have been retracted during the past 35 years because of fraud and plagiarism than for any other combination of reasons, according to a new study.

Particularly troubling, the researchers say, has been a 10-fold increase in the number of retractions attributed to fraud or suspected fraud.

Compared with the scale of the global scientific enterprise, the numbers are tiny. The research team's sample of 25 million research papers – formal descriptions of experiments and their results – published since the 1940s turned up slightly more than 2,000 instances of retractions since the first one in the sample was issued in 1977. Of those, 886 were yanked because of fraud, and 201 were retracted because of plagiarism. The remainder were retracted either because of mistakes or because the same paper was published twice.

The retractions involved papers from 56 countries, with some 75 percent of the fraud-related papers stemming from labs in the US, Germany, Japan, and China. The US led the pack.

It's unclear whether the increase in fraud-related retractions reflect an uptick in the number of shady scientists or better detection, even if it comes after the journals publishing the papers have hit the streets.

Increased detection has played a role, notes Ferric Fang, professor of laboratory medicine and microbiology at theUniversity of Washington in Seattle and the study's lead author. The study, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), notes that the upswing began in 1989, after Congress approved whistleblower-protection legislation and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) set up a body to oversee the integrity of research the agency has funded.

Moreover, he says, the team's analysis showed that the journals considered to be the most prestigious retracted tainted papers faster than did more-obscure journals, pointing to the close read these journals get by other researchers.

"But you also have the strong impression, in looking at some of these massive instances of fraud over many years, that ... retractions are more common because retractable offenses are more common," Dr. Fang says.

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One Response to The Growing Problem of Scientific Fraud

  1. Mark says:

    The article only says that the rate per year of incidents is rising. But what is the frequency relative to the number of papers? The fraud rate per thousand published papers might be approximately constant if the absolute rate of publication itself has been on the rise.

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