Scientific retractions increasing sharply but is it due to better detection or increased misconduct?

Retractions of scientific papers is increasing sharply.

I am a strong believer in the Rule of the Iceberg where “whatever becomes visible is only 10% of all that exists”. And while I do not know if the number of retractions of scientific papers is increasing because detection methods are improved or because scientific misconduct is increasing, I am quite sure that the misconduct that is indicated by retractions is only a small part of all the misconduct that goes on.

What is clear however is that the world wide web provides a powerful new forum for the exercising of a check and a balance. It provides a hitherto unavailable method for mobilising resources from a wide and disparate group of individuals. The success of web sites such as Retraction Watch and Vroniplag are testimony to this. And the investigative power of the on-line community is particularly evident with Vroniplag as has been described by Prof.  Debora Weber-Wulff’s blog. And this investigative power – even if made up of “amateurs” in the on-line community – can bring to bear a vast and varying experience of techniques and expertise which – if harnessed towards a particular target – can function extremely rapidly. The recent on-line investigation and disclosure that an award winning nature photographer had been photo-shopping a great number of photographs of lynxes, wolves and raccoons and had invented stories about his encounters was entirely due to “amateurs” on the Flashback Forum in Sweden who very quickly created a web site to disclose all his trangressions and exactly how he had manipulated his images.

Nature addresses the subject of retractions today:

This week, some 27,000 freshly published research articles will pour into the Web of Science, Thomson Reuters’ vast online database of scientific publications. Almost all of these papers will stay there forever, a fixed contribution to the research literature. But 200 or so will eventually be flagged with a note of alteration such as a correction. And a handful — maybe five or six — will one day receive science’s ultimate post-publication punishment: retraction, the official declaration that a paper is so flawed that it must be withdrawn from the literature. … But retraction notices are increasing rapidly. In the early 2000s, only about 30 retraction notices appeared annually. This year, the Web of Science is on track to index more than 400 (see ‘Rise of the retractions’) — even though the total number of papers published has risen by only 44% over the past decade. …. 

…… When the UK-based Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) surveyed editors’ attitudes to retraction two years ago, it found huge inconsistencies in policies and practices between journals, says Elizabeth Wager, a medical writer in Princes Risborough, UK, who is chair of COPE. That survey led to retraction guidelines that COPE published in 2009. But it’s still the case, says Wager, that “editors often have to be pushed to retract”. …… 

In surveys, around 1–2% of scientists admit to having fabricated, falsified or modified data or results at least once (D. Fanelli PLoS ONE4, e5738; 2009). But over the past decade, retraction notices for published papers have increased from 0.001% of the total to only about 0.02%. And, Ioannidis says, that subset of papers is “the tip of the iceberg” — too small and fragmentary for any useful conclusions to be drawn about the overall rates of sloppiness or misconduct.

Instead, it is more probable that the growth in retractions has come from an increased awareness of research misconduct, says Steneck. That’s thanks in part to the setting up of regulatory bodies such as the US Office of Research Integrity in the Department of Health and Human Services. These ensure greater accountability for the research institutions, which, along with researchers, are responsible for detecting mistakes.

The growth also owes a lot to the emergence of software for easily detecting plagiarism and image manipulation, combined with the greater number of readers that the Internet brings to research papers. In the future, wider use of such software could cause the rate of retraction notices to dip as fast as it spiked, simply because more of the problematic papers will be screened out before they reach publication. On the other hand, editors’ newfound comfort with talking about retraction may lead to notices coming at an even greater rate. …… 

Read the article

A graphic of retractions is here.

The academic and scientific community will – perforce – mirror the surrounding society it is embedded in. Standards of ethics and instances of misconduct will follow those of the surrounding environment. But the scientific community is somewhat protected in terms of not often having to bear liability for what they have published. Having to bear some responsibility and face liability for the quality of what they produce can be a force which will improve ethical standards immensely. Bringing incompetent or cheating scientists to book is not an attack on science. And it is what science needs to regain some of the reputation that has been tarnished in recent times. With the spotlight that is now available in the form of the world wide web, I expect the level of scrutiny to increase and this too can only be a force for the good.

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