WASHINGTON — When a biomedical study is retracted, most of the time it is because of misconduct rather than error, a report published Monday said.
Two-thirds of all retractions around the world stem from acts like fraud, suspected fraud or plagiarism, it added.
And as a percentage of all scientific articles published, retractions because of fraud or suspected fraud have jumped 10-fold since 1975, said the study.
Its lead author was Arturo Casadevall, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University, in New York. The study was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“Biomedical research has become a winner-take-all game, one with perverse incentives that entice scientists to cut corners and, in some instances, falsify data or commit other acts of misconduct,” Casadevall wrote.
He said the numbers stand in stark contract to earlier studies which suggested mistakes accounted for the majority of retracted scientific papers.
Casadevall and two other scientists reviewed 2,047 papers that were removed from biomedical literature through May of this year.
The authors consulted secondary sources to determine why the papers were yanked, such as the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Research Integrity, and Retractionwatch.com. Both probe scientific misconduct.
They found that 21 percent of the retractions were attributable to error, but 67 percent stemmed from misconduct. Miscellaneous or unknown reasons accounted for the rest.
“What’s troubling is that the more skillful the fraud, the less likely that it will be discovered, so there likely are more fraudulent papers out there that haven’t yet been detected and retracted,” Casadevall wrote.
He said that earlier studies which underestimated the scope of scientific cheating were based just on journals’ retraction notices, written by the original authors themselves.
“Many of those notices are wrong,” he said.
“Authors commonly write, ‘We regret we have to retract our paper because the work is not reproducible,’ which is not exactly a lie. The work indeed was not reproducible because it was fraudulent. Researchers try to protect their labs and their reputations, and these retractions are written in such a way that you often don’t know what really happened.”
Prestigious journals had particularly high rates of retractions.
This reflects a prevailing culture in science in which researchers are disproportionately rewarded for publishing a lot and getting published in top-notch journals, he said.