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Misconduct, Not Error, Is the Main Cause of Scientific Retractions 123

ananyo writes "One of the largest-ever studies of retractions has found that two-thirds of retracted life-sciences papers were stricken from the scientific record because of misconduct such as fraud or suspected fraud — and that journals sometimes soft-pedal the reason. The study contradicts the conventional view that most retractions of papers in scientific journals are triggered by unintentional errors. The survey examined all 2,047 articles in the PubMed database that had been marked as retracted by 3 May this year. But rather than taking journals' retraction notices at face value, as previous analyses have done, the study used secondary sources to pin down the reasons for retraction if the notices were incomplete or vague. The analysis revealed that fraud or suspected fraud was responsible for 43% of the retractions. Other types of misconduct — duplicate publication and plagiarism — accounted for 14% and 10% of retractions, respectively. Only 21% of the papers were retracted because of error (abstract)."
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Misconduct, Not Error, Is the Main Cause of Scientific Retractions

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  • Publish or perish (Score:5, Interesting)

    by i kan reed ( 749298 ) on Tuesday October 02, 2012 @02:06PM (#41528503) Homepage Journal

    "Get only positive results or never get tenure" is a policy that dooms us to this exact course. Publishing is no longer a consequence of having a brilliant idea, but rather a means to an ends(keeping your job). The academic community needs to find another metric for researcher quality other than papers published. It's costing everyone the truth.

  • Re:Publish or perish (Score:3, Interesting)

    by raydobbs ( 99133 ) on Tuesday October 02, 2012 @02:22PM (#41528741) Homepage Journal

    With the public retreat from education, universities have to take their funding from more private sources. As a result, there is outside pressure to do research to favor these outside sources of funding, and you get a recipe for fraud and misconduct. Of course, the universities won't admit that they have had to make a deal with the devil to keep the doors open - and a large part of our (United States) political system is dead-set on taking us backward in terms of scientific progress to appease their less-than-sophisticated backers; and the problem is set to only get worse unless we as a people do something to stop it.

  • Re:Publish or perish (Score:2, Interesting)

    by jamesmusik ( 2629975 ) on Tuesday October 02, 2012 @02:32PM (#41528871)
    Journals don't only publish papers reporting "positive results," whatever that may be. Even if your study comes out a way you didn't expect, if you did it right, you should still be able to get it published. There's something beyond publish or perish that is at work here.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday October 02, 2012 @02:32PM (#41528879)

    Yep. That's a very important, and very *missing* bit of information. Even if *ALL* of the retracted articles were for *blatant* and *intentional* misconduct (not duplicate publication), and all of them were published in the same year, and all of them were in PubMed, that would be a whopping 0.4% fraud rate.

    It boggles my mind that this number wasn't asked for by the article's author.

    Well, it *should*, but instead I'm just getting more cynical and assuming either incompetence (the author is writing about something he has absolutely no clue about, and therefore doesn't even know to ask for the information to put it into context), or malice (the author is trying to paint modern science as intentionally fraudulent).

  • Re:Publish or perish (Score:5, Interesting)

    by js33 ( 1077193 ) on Tuesday October 02, 2012 @02:52PM (#41529141)

    A positive result is the rejection of a null hypothesis. In the frequentist statistical paradigm, a failure to reject the null hypothesis is simply not significant. Insignificant results are not usually considered worthy of publication. "If your study comes out a way you didn't expect," then the way you expected your study to come out is a null hypothesis which can supposedly be rejected with some measurable degree of significance. This way you can explain the significance of what you learned from the "failure" of your experiment, and there is no reason you should not be able to publish it.

    That's the statistical paradigm. Results just aren't significant unless you can state them in a positive way.

  • Re:Publish or perish (Score:3, Interesting)

    by scamper_22 ( 1073470 ) on Tuesday October 02, 2012 @02:56PM (#41529209)

    It's not the academic community that is at fault. It is our society.

    I've long held the view that science only gained the credibility it has because it was free from politics and power.

    But since science has gained such credibility, people think we should now *trust* with power. Which of course destroys the very thing that gave it that trust. Ye old saying 'power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely'.

    For one thing, we now have government funding for science. Sounds like a good idea... except of course. That means funding for universities... which need to hire faculty. So whom do they hire and how much do they pay them? Why did they hire Bob and not Alice? Alice would like a job too. The whole question of fairness comes up.

    Then of course there's the issue of funding projects. Which projects get funded? Which lobbyists and politicians and special interest groups matter? What policies will be impacted?

    It all sounds very neat to have a special scientific class able to deliver *the truth*. It's just completely unscientific and contrary to all empirical evidence in history to think it possible. There has never been a group of wise people in power outside of politics.

    Plato envisioned the Philosopher Kings on a group of wise societal leaders. It is said this actually that this was the foundation of the Islamic Republic in Iran... a group of wise religious people given power in Iran. Not unlike people who wish for rational administration or scientific experts in position in Western society to make decision outside of democracy. It's all too common to hear people wishing for transit policy to be decided by transit experts in 'independent panels'. Or healthcare policy...

    It's a very dangerous road.

    In short... despite all the technology, education, and the internet and accessibility to information... the *truth* remains as elusive as ever.

  • Re:Publish or perish (Score:2, Interesting)

    by hsthompson69 ( 1674722 ) on Tuesday October 02, 2012 @03:06PM (#41529351)

    Well, you've got the devils on the corporate side, who may be trying to avoid bad press, say large organic potato farmers who don't wan to see studies that show the deleterious effects of carbohydrate intake on obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other chronic diseases. Fewer carbs sold means less profit to the company.

    But then, you've got the devils on the government side, who also may be trying to avoid bad press, say the USDA regulators who don't want to see studies that show the deleterious effects of carbohydrate intake on obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other chronic diseases. In this case, a refutation of government advice (four food groups, food pyramid, my plate), would mean less credibility for government advice in the future.

    In either case, I think we need systems in place to combat fraud. Start off with a necessary and sufficient falsifiable hypothesis statement *before* the study. Publish the result data publicly no matter what the outcome (data retention and dissemination). A focus on double blind placebo controlled work instead of observational studies that can't show causality.

    Trying to pose this as a "government schools are declining, therefore science is going wrong" is a misunderstanding of the fact that government can have non-scientific impulses.

  • Re:Publish or perish (Score:2, Interesting)

    by SomeKDEUser ( 1243392 ) on Tuesday October 02, 2012 @05:33PM (#41531275)

    The problem with biomed research is that the field is rife with people who don't understand models. Biomed research is not really science in that we are not yet at the point where we can express mathematical models to make predictions which are then falsified or not.

    All too often, it is a case of "I knock down/over-express a gene, find that it does something, and then make up some bullshit where I pretend it'll cure cancer". In many cases, articles get published because the reviewers don't say "this claim is not supported by your experiment (purely on the grounds of the claim being logically inconsistent)" or, "you say this thing is happenning, why the fuck did you not quantify it? (See, you claim this thing disappeared, what are the odds your method is just not sensitive enough?)".

    This pepperred with idiots who put gaussian error bars on numbers of cells, which ought to be a motive of immediate rejection. No, I am not bitter.

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