More on scientific fraud

A new study finds that an increasing number of scientific papers are having to be retracted because of possible fraud.

In the new study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, two scientists and a medical communications consultant analyzed 2,047 retracted papers in the biomedical and life sciences. They found that fraud or suspected fraud was the reason for three-quarters of the retractions for which they could determine the cause.

Dr. Casadevall and another author, Dr. Ferric C. Fang of the University of Washington, have been outspoken critics of the current culture of science. To them, the rising rate of retractions reflects perverse incentives that drive scientists to make sloppy mistakes or even knowingly publish false data.

While the fraudulent papers may be relatively few, he went on, their rapid increase is a sign of a winner-take-all culture in which getting a paper published in a major journal can be the difference between heading a lab and facing unemployment. “Some fraction of people are starting to cheat,” he said.

What we see is the result of something that has been well known to psychologists for a long time. If you create a high-stakes atmosphere in which people are expected to achieve outcomes that are directly measurable, then you create incentives to cheat. We see this with the recent reports of students cheating in college to get good grades, teachers and school districts cheating on standardized tests and attendance rates to meet state and national goals, and people in the financial industry seeking to get large bonuses by achieving certain profit margins.

I have been highlighting cases of scientific misconduct because it is essential that science police itself if it is to advance. I have been concerned for some time that we are putting a lot of pressure on scientific researchers, especially young ones, to get unrealistic amounts of grant money and publications. This drives some of them to cut corners, if not outright cheat, and is not healthy for the future of science.


  1. says

    I think this becomes more true when you have special interest groups who want a study that says exactly what they want it to, and they have the money to grease it through. The people paying don’t care if it gets retracted later, they can still peddle it to the people who don’t understand what “peer-review” means.

    Unfortunately, I’m not really sure how to put a stop to this. The only thing I can think of is putting less emphasis in school on passing a standardized test, and more on critical thinking.

  2. Jared A says

    I have noticed that in general the life sciences tend to me the most cut-throat in culture, too. If there is a correlation, I wonder what the causation is. Is it related to how much more the US spends on health research (NIH vs. others such as NSF)?

  3. baal says

    The other solution is to increase the science / higher ed budget. It would lower the stakes by making it easier to get a job. We (US) currently overproduces (relative to the job and grant market) science graduates. On a per capita basis, we’re not over producing graduates so the solution is on the funding side. It’s been a while since I was in academia but the grant applications and proposals for with really good review scores (i.e. work worth doing) was double what actually got funded (~10-15% get funding, top 30% are probably worth doing, these are round numbers).

  4. Jared A says

    Another thing is that (at least for the fields I am used to) it is difficult or even impossible to have a long term career as an academic scientist who is subordinate to another scientist. You have to be your own boss, writing your own grants. There are no academic “scientist” positions outside of the national labs. You either are a grad student (for 4-6 years), a postdoc (for 2-3 years), or a professor (for infinity). Continuing as a postdoc indefinitely happens but is generally not allowed and has terrible job security (your contract is yearly). If you take a postdoc longer than that everyone will assume there is something wrong with you and your chances of getting or keeping a job plummet.

    It’s not like this everywhere in the world, so there’s no reason to keep doing it this way.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *