More published research papers the currency of a career in
science have been retracted during the past 35 years because of
fraud and plagiarism than for any other combination of reasons,
according to a new study.
Particularly troubling, the researchers say, has been a 10-fold
increase in the number of retractions attributed to fraud or
Compared with the scale of the global scientific enterprise, the
numbers are tiny. The research team's sample of 25 million research
papers formal descriptions of experiments and their results
published since the 1940s turned up slightly more than 2,000
instances of retractions since the first one in the sample was
issued in 1977. Of those, 886 were yanked because of fraud, and 201
were retracted because of plagiarism. The remainder were retracted
either because of mistakes or because the same paper was published
The retractions involved papers from 56 countries, with some 75
percent of the fraud-related papers stemming from labs in the US,
Germany, Japan, and China. The US led the pack.
It's unclear whether the increase in fraud-related retractions
reflect an uptick in the number of shady scientists or better
detection, even if it comes after the journals publishing the papers
have hit the streets.
Increased detection has played a role, notes Ferric Fang,
professor of laboratory medicine and microbiology at the University
of Washington in Seattle and the study's lead author. The study,
published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of
Sciences (PNAS), notes that the upswing began in 1989, after
Congress approved whistleblower-protection legislation and the
National Institutes of Health (NIH) set up a body to oversee the
integrity of research the agency has funded.
Moreover, he says, the team's analysis showed that the journals
considered to be the most prestigious retracted tainted papers
faster than did more-obscure journals, pointing to the close read
these journals get by other researchers.
"But you also have the strong impression, in looking at some of
these massive instances of fraud over many years, that ...
retractions are more common because retractable offenses are more
common," Dr. Fang says.
"We have this idea that science is self-correcting, and there's
certainly some truth to that," he says, noting that if results can't
be replicated by other researchers, if a conclusion is wrong, it
will be identified.
"But there's other stuff out there that doesn't come to wrong
conclusions. It's just based on fraudulent data. It's in an area
that isn't being intensively investigated by others, or people don't
confirm those findings but they're not really sure why," he adds,
noting that these are the results that tend to hang around to
potentially influence future experiments.
Although instances of research misconduct are few, they can have
a substantial ripple effect, notes Heather McFadden, who heads the
Responsible Conduct of Research program at the University of
Wisconsin at Madison's Graduate School Office of Research.
One of the most high-profile examples involved the issue of
That paper, which the PNAS study identifies as the most widely
cited retracted work, cited research purported to uncover a link
between autism and vaccines given to children. The work was
published in 1998 in the British medical journal Lancet. Subsequent
studies reportedly indicated that the data were fraudulent.
Meanwhile, Britain's General Medical Council stripped the study's
author, Andrew Wakefield, of his status as a "registered medical
practitioner" for misconduct after investigating his research
The research triggered a backlash against immunization that
extended from Britain to the US. Dr. Wakefield still defends his
research. One review of the study and its aftermath, published last
year in the journal Ann Pharmacother, called it "the most damaging
medical hoax of the last 100 years. …