‘Retraction is a mechanism for correcting the literature and alerting readers to publications that contain such seriously flawed or erroneous data that their findings and conclusions cannot be relied upon’
– (COPE Retraction Guidelines)

The process of retraction is nothing new. As long ago as 1633, such notable research as Galileo’s discovery that the earth was not the centre of the universe was questioned and withdrawn under pressure from the Catholic Church. But in recent years it has been widely reported that retractions are on the rise, with people quick to spot the disproportionate increase in those of a fraudulent nature:

 

Rising retraction rates

Source: Fang Lab / PNAS 2012

Inevitably, it is these cases which attract the greatest media interest, from such notorious scandals as Wakefield’s infamous paper on the refuted effects caused by the MMR vaccine, to the extreme case of William Hamman’s ‘Catch Me If You Can’ style scam, whereby the American airline pilot published academic papers under the ruse of being a cardiologist. These high-profile retractions, as well as lesser-known incidences of plagiarism and fraud, beg the question:

Is duplicitous behavior in academia on the up?

As the news continues to be peppered with stories of fraud and deceit, from the News International phone-hacking scandal, to the LIBOR rate-fixing controversy, you may be forgiven for perceiving society as increasingly corrupt, with more and more skeletons emerging from supposedly respectable closets. If we take these mounting statistics at face value, we run the risk of painting authors as dishonest villains, laughing in the face of ethics in their eagerness to publish.

Spare a moment however for the voice of reason before planting both feet firmly on the bandwagon. Fraudulent retractions are undeniably on the increase, but the reason behind this rise may well be due to more complex reasons than first appear.

For one thing, the processes and systems in place to spot incidences of fraud are becoming ever more sophisticated. Anti-plagirism software is increasingly used, whether randomly or as a matter of course, to check for even the slightest levels of duplication; peer review continues to be a vital tool in spotting fabrication and error before papers even reach publication; but added to this is the vast and vigilant global community of readers.

Thanks to online publication, scholarly content is now subject to an army of academics who are reading, sharing and reviewing in a way that was never possible while articles were limited to print alone. Within hours of publication, a paper can be read hundreds of times, subject to the eagle eyes of readers the world over. With this increased readership comes increased scrutiny, allowing better policing of online content.

So what picture would you choose to paint? A bleak world of rising fraud and deceit, where duplicitous authors seek to actively deceive? Or a growing community of honesty and vigilance, seeking accuracy and excellence despite the exceptions? The choice is yours.

Comments

  1. Very interesting and, sadly, not surprising. Particularly as the competition for research resources and job security becomes ever tougher.

    Something that would be worth looking into is the number of review articles being published. It may be just me, but I’ve noticed a significant increase in the number of reviews published in my field(s) in recent years. Writing reviews has some very significant advantages for the lazy researcher who has little of significance to add to a field. Apart from free self-citations (justified because it is a review, you know), one can also short-circuit history and have the review cited by even lazier researchers (how many of us have read “see [2, and references therein]”?), robbing the people who actually went to the effort and pain to produce the original research and, lastly, they are able to stick one-off data into the manuscript (labelled, “unpublished”, of course) that will never be reviewed in its own right. I guess somehow the authors believe, as well, that a review article elevates their profile, without having to produce anything new.

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