The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 15, No. 1 (Spring 2013)
Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 15.1 (Spring 2013). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.
Alot has been written lately about student cheating. But students are not the only ones breaking the rules. Over the past decade, the number of published articles withdrawn from biomedical and life-science journals has risen ten-fold. This startling development was first reported in 2011, but its significance was unclear, since retraction notices are often opaque, offering no clear reason for the retraction. Studies based on such notices have identified error as the most common cause. That conclusion, it seems, was itself in error.
Concerned by the rising number of retractions, two scientists and a medical consultant investigated all of the more than 2,000 articles identified as retracted in PubMed, the main database of biomedical research. The authors consulted not only the published retraction notices but also reports from the Office of Research Integrity, news media, and other public records.
Their findings were published this past October in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In three quarters of the cases where the researchers could identify the cause of retraction, the cause was misconduct: fraud or suspected fraud, duplicate publication, or plagiarism. Only one quarter of the articles were retracted for error. While many retractions for fraud are attributable to a small number of notorious scientists and the total number of retractions is but a very small percentage of the total literature, the authors of the study took little solace in these facts. They also emphasized that “only a fraction of fraudulent articles are retracted,” and that “there are other more common sources of unreliability in the literature.”
The findings of the study suggest two possibilities: the scientific community is getting better at exposing fraud, or fraud itself is on the rise. The study’s authors believe the latter. They blame various dysfunctions in the scientific community, especially the “winner-takes-all” incentive system, and call for reforms that include an “enhanced focus on ethics.” Both the dysfunctions and the reforms sound a lot like the causes and solutions offered for student cheating. Perhaps the “integrity counseling” being offered to students could be extended to their professors.