Fraud and scientific error in medical journals on the rise

Retractions of research papers by leading academic journals due to fraud or scientific error have hit an all time high, reports The New York Times.

This week the newspaper reported on a plea by two journal editors to overhaul the process of publishing research papers, which, they warn, has become “a winner-takes-all-game with perverse incentives that lead scientists to take shortcuts and sometimes commit misconduct”.

In two editorials in Infections and Immunity Dr Ferric Fang and Dr Arturo Casasevall highlighted the steep rise in retractions by science journals. For example, published retractions in the journal Nature are shown to have increased tenfold in the last decade. But the highest level of retractions identified by Fang and Casasevall was at the New England Journal of Medicine.

The New York Times notes that the investigation by Fang and Casasevall seems to validate wider concerns that science has changed in worrying ways – especially in the area medical research. Their study of the PubMed database showed that ‘fraud or fabrication’ accounted for over a quarter of retractions made by scientific journals between 2000 and 2009.

One of the reasons for the growing rate of retractions, say Fang and Casasevall, is the enormous pressure on younger scientists to get papers published in high profile journals – it is how they establish their careers and survive professionally. Fang told The New York Times: “You cannot afford to have your hypothesis disproved”.