The Retraction Epidemic

In the Washington Post, Peter Whoriskey writes about the rising incidence of fraud in research labs:

It may be impossible for anyone from outside to know the extent of the problems in the Nature paper. But the incident comes amid a phenomenon that some call a “retraction epidemic.”

Last year, research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that the percentage of scientific articles retracted because of fraud had increased tenfold since 1975.

The same analysis reviewed more than 2,000 retracted biomedical papers and found that 67 percent of the retractions were attributable to misconduct, mainly fraud or suspected fraud.

One of the less-obvious downsides of academic fraud:

The trouble is that a delayed response — or none at all — leaves other scientists to build upon shaky work. [Ferric] Fang said he has talked to researchers who have lost months by relying on results that proved impossible to reproduce.

Moreover, as [Adam] Marcus and [Ivan] Oransky have noted, much of the research is funded by taxpayers. Yet when retractions are done, they are done quietly and “live in obscurity,” meaning taxpayers are unlikely to find out that their money may have been wasted.


Publish or Perish,
We have created an academic system that is only based on publishing new research, professors tenure and livelihood at a university is based on where and how much they are published. Creating an economic incentive for professors to lie on research papers, and as economist we all know that people respond to and in most cases manipulate incentives to their own benefit. These are well educated individuals that in our current society would lead us to believe are trustworthy, however because of the immense pressure to publish new work, many in the field have been driven to lie and cheat to publish papers.


It's the same thing in journalism from what I see. Namely BIG HEADLINE about something, then when disproved or corrected, tiny story weeks later mentioning the rebuttal.

I can't count the number of times I hear people talking about things "heard in the news" as fact that I know were later definitively corrected. I guess they (the journalism industry) really have no incentive to attempt to get the word out because the original intent (to get eyeballs, not provide information) was already fulfilled.


How does the World Wide Web contribute to this? In 1975 I, Suzie Citizen or various fact-checkers extrordinaire would not get the "news" until it had filtered down from the mountaintop.


Look on Facebook, perhaps the most concentrated group of fact checkers there could be, yet my feed is inundated every day with made up either "inspirational" or "this should outrage you" stories that are liked 10,000+ times yet are made up and copied and pasted with slightly different details over and over.


As we start depending more and more on academic studies for public policy, this will become a real problem. Every day, you hear a politician pushing a new statistic or a new data point to drum up support for a new law. How many of those statistics and data points are the result of fraud?


One of the great upsides of science in general is that, while time and money can be wasted, when results are published, other scientists attempt to reproduce them. The downsides are generally (though not always, as the author points out) capped before they become catastrophic. Is there a lesson to be learned in the financial world?


All of these authors have bosses (institutions) who share in the spoils (grant money) funding the research. If the institutions were required to refund money received when research is found to be fraudulent, we would see more oversight where it works best -- in the institution.

Right now, there is some small amount of reputational loss to the institution which they can fix by firing the miscreant. But when millions of already spent dollars fly out the door ...

Enter your name...

A group I worked for tried to build a study on someone else's work—some basic research that is probably not fraudulent, and whose author had happily given us the details of his protocols and suppliers—when we heard a rather chilling comment about the study: "You know, nobody else has been able to reproduce those results".

These failed attempts weren't published and weren't even verifiable. We never did find anyone who had actually attempted it, just people who'd heard the rumor that no one had been able to. We didn't get the funding to run the study, so it was all moot anyway (maybe the reviewers had believed the same rumor?), but it made me think that it would be very nice if people were required to publish all their results, not just the ones that support their pet theories.


And what a HUGE problem this is for us in clinical medicine also.