Opaque Retraction Notices Hiding Growing Culture of Misconduct Incentivized by Academic Career Pressures? (kudos to PNAS paper & Retraction Watch)

Given recent discussions with authors being asked to sign opaque retraction notices (and no explanation even to them as to why the paper must be retracted – and no negotiation on rewording the notice to clear uninvolved/uninformed authors of guilt by association), this PNAS paper by Fang, Steen and Casadevall could not be more timely … and this research could not be more important to the scientific community as a whole:

A detailed review of all 2,047 biomedical and life-science research articles indexed by PubMed as retracted on May 3, 2012 revealed that only 21.3%of retractionswere attributable to error. In contrast, 67.4% of retractions were attributable to misconduct, including fraud or suspected fraud (43.4%), duplicate publication (14.2%), and plagiarism (9.8%). Incomplete, uninformative or misleading retraction announcements have led to a previous underestimation of the role of fraud in the ongoing retraction epidemic. The percentage of scientic articles retracted because of fraud has increased since 1975. Retractions exhibit distinctive temporal and geographic patterns that may reveal underlying causes.

Not surprisingly, Adam Marcus and Ivan Oransky – on whom the PNAS authors rely heavily – run with this theme at Retraction Watch:

It’s now clear that the reason misconduct seemed to play a smaller role in retractions, according to previous studies, is that so many notices said nothing about why a paper was retracted. If scientific journals are as interested in correcting the literature as they’d like us to think they are, and want us to believe they’re transparent, the ones that fail to include that information need to take a lesson from those that do.

… The question, of course, is, how common is scientific misconduct? The simple but unsatisfying answer is that we don’t know, certainly not based on this study, because it’s only of retractions. Some of the best data we have comes from a 2009 paper in PLoS ONE by Daniele Fanelli. In it, Fanelli does his own survey, and combines findings from other surveys.

In other words, 2% of scientists admit to having committed misconduct, but almost three-quarters say their colleagues have been involved in “questionable research practices.” But those may be low figures.

As the authors of the new PNAS study point out, all we can say for sure, based on their findings, is that misconduct plays more of a role in retractions than we thought it did. But we think they make a good argument for why retractions may be the canary in a coal mine when it comes to fraud …

Nature concludes with a discussion of another Retraction Watch theme, a transparency index for journals:

Ivan Oransky, a New York-based journalist and co-founder of Retraction Watch, suggests setting up a ‘transparency index’ for journals, to rank them on criteria such as the clarity of their retraction notices. The idea, which he says he would be keen to work on, could provide a much-needed incentive for journals to improve their performance in this area. Data from the current study could also serve as a basis for a retractions database to help scientists avoid wasting time trying to replicate or build on retracted work, he adds.

“I’m not necessarily opposed to the idea, but I have concerns about how such a database could be properly maintained and updated,” says Fang. “Our study is merely a snapshot. Creating an accurate, centralized database that could be used as an ongoing resource would be a considerable undertaking.”

Science starts off featuring the number of months between publication and retraction by cause but does not duck its role in the top ten retractors list:

Science has the dubious distinction of being ranked first for the number of articles retracted, 70, just edging out PNAS, which comes second with 69. Thirty-two of Science‘s retractions were due to fraud or suspected fraud, and 37 to error. These days, “the value of the work is determined by where it is published,” Casadevall says. Last year, he and Fang devised a “retraction index” to show that journals with relatively high impact factors, such as Science, Nature, and Cell, had a higher rate of retractions.

Apart from the question of how pervasive is misconduct in science today, The Chronicle of Higher Education highlights the implications in terms of pressures to publish for academic promotion and grant funding:

“Right now we’re incentivizing a lot of behavior that’s not actually constructive to science,” Dr. Fang said.

… For Dr. Fang, the amount of misconduct in high-profile journals is a clear sign that researchers are facing far too much pressure from statistical measures such as publication rates and impact factors when seeking job promotions and grant money.

Hopefully coverage in the New York Times and other media outlets will not disillusion the public nor lessen the enthusiasm of Congress to support scientific research …

Dr. Casadevall disagreed. “It convinces me more that we have a problem in science,” he said.

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.

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