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.