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Fraud in scientific research: It happens, and cases are on the rise

Of 2,000 retractions of published scientific papers since 1977, 866 were because of fraud, a new study finds. Another 201 were plagiarized. But it's hard to know if more scientists are cheating, or if detection is simply better.

By Staff writer / October 2, 2012

In this May 2010 file photo, Andrew Wakefield speaks in Chicago. Britain's General Medical Council stripped Wakefield of his status as a 'registered medical practitioner' following claims that he committed scientific misconduct.

Charles Rex Arbogas/AP/File

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More published research papers – the currency of a career in science – have been retracted during the past 35 years because of fraud and plagiarism than for any other combination of reasons, according to a new study.

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Particularly troubling, the researchers say, has been a 10-fold increase in the number of retractions attributed to fraud or suspected fraud.

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 twice.

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.

The vast majority of the papers retracted for misconduct dealt with biomedical or life-science research. Some, though, involved fields not directly related to life science – fields such as semiconductor research and psychology.

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 childhood immunizations.

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 effort.

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