C&B Notes

Retractions on the Rise

We recently shared an article where the author took academic journals and pop science media outlets for a ride.  Of course, the journals are not the only ones responding with poor behavior to the underlying economic incentives.  Academics have long issued fraudulent and/or inaccurate studies in an effort to get published and to burnish their reputations (and get tenure), although thankfully it appears that they are now getting caught more often.

This psychologist, Diederik Stapel, might have been an extreme case, but he was by no means alone in using questionable research practices.  There are Stapels in other fields too, prominent scientists who were unmasked as data fabricators or falsifiers: like South Korean stem-cell researcher Hwang Woo Suk, or Harvard evolutionary biologist, Marc Hauser.  And research suggests that these extreme cases are symptomatic of widespread questionable research practices in science at large, as Yudhijit Bhattacharjee wrote in a profile of Stapel in the New York Times:

[F]igures like Hwang and Hauser are not outliers so much as one end on a continuum of dishonest behaviors that extend from the cherry-picking of data to fit a chosen hypothesis —which many researchers admit is commonplace — to outright fabrication.

Research has suggested that outright fraudulent scientists tend to target journals with “high impact factors”, and certain questionable research practices are so prevalent they “may constitute the defacto scientific norm.”  It might seem as though a new retraction rocks the media every other month, these days.  And the rate of retractions has gone up quite a bit: The percentage of scientific articles retracted from PubMed because of fraud has increased 10-fold since 1975, and tripled between the early 2000 to the late 2000s.  The editor of the American Journal of Neuroradiology called it an “epidemic.”

On the face of it, it might look like corruption and fraud are taking over the sciences at unprecedented levels.  But according to a recent study, it’s pretty unlikely that the rate of misconduct itself has increased.  The author of the study says the increased rate of retractions is due to the fact the scientific community has gotten better at detecting and combating misconduct.  In other words, it may have been an epidemic all along.  The malady has not spread much, but our diagnostics have improved.  If that’s the case, the author writes in the title of the paper, “growing retractions are (mostly) a good sign.”