Study: Scientific research fraud on the rise
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WASHINGTON - Fraud in scientific research, while still rare, is
growing at a troubling pace, a new study finds. A review of
retractions in medical and biological peer-reviewed journals finds the
percentage of studies withdrawn because of fraud or suspected fraud
has jumped substantially since the mid-1970s. In 1976, there were
fewer than 10 fraud retractions for every 1 million studies published,
compared with 96 retractions per million in 2007. The study authors
aren't quite sure why this is happening. But they and outside experts
point to pressure to hit it big in science, both for funding and
attention, and to what seems to be a subtle increase in deception in
overall society that science may simply be mirroring.
Fraud in life sciences research is still minuscule and committed by
only a few dozen scientific scofflaws. However, it causes big
problems, said Arturo Casadevall, a professor of microbiology at the
Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. Casadevall is the
lead author of the study which looked at the reasons for 2,047
retractions among many millions of studies published in journals and
kept in a government database for medically focused research. Fraud
was the No. 1 cause of retractions, accounting for 43 percent of them.
When fraud was combined with other areas of misconduct, such as
plagiarism, it explained about 2 out of 3 retractions, the study
found. 'Very few people are doing it, but when they do it, they are
doing it in areas that are very important,' Casadevall said. 'And when
these things come out, society loses faith in science.'
Prominent retractions that Casadevall cited for fraud include a
notorious British study that wrongly linked childhood vaccines to
autism, nine separate studies on highly touted research at Duke
University about cancer treatment, and work by a South Korean cloning
expert who later was convicted in court of embezzlement and illegally
buying human eggs for research. Casadevall said he was surprised
because he didn't set out to study fraud. His plan was to examine the
most common avoidable errors that caused retractions. What he found
was that 889 of the more than 2,000 retractions were due to fraud or
While other studies have shown a rise in retractions, no previous
study has found scientific misconduct as the leading cause, said
Nicholas Steneck, director of the research ethics program at the
University of Michigan, who wasn't involved in the Casadevall study.
That shows a need for better, more honest reporting of retractions by
the science journals themselves, he said. He and others also said the
findings suggest there may just be better detection of scientific
Most 'scientists out there are well meaning and honest people who are
going to be totally appalled by this,' Casadevall said. The study was
published online Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of
Sciences, which had the second most retracted articles for all
reasons, behind only the journal Science. The publication with the
most fraud-based retractions was the Journal of Biological Chemistry.
PNAS ranked fifth.
Casadevall said that even if society as a whole has become more
deceptive, 'I used to think that science was on a different plane. But
I think science is like everybody else and that we are susceptible to
the same pressures.' In science, he said, 'there's a disproportionate
reward system' so if a researcher is published in certain prominent
journals they are more likely to get jobs and funding, so the
'Bigger money makes for bigger reasons for fraud,' said New York
University bioethicist Arthur Caplan. 'More fame, more potential for
profit... Some of the cheating and fraud is not too dissimilar to the
cheating and fraud we've seen in banking.'
Science historian Marcel LaFollette, author of a book about science
fraud 'Stealing into Print,' said researchers can't prove that more
people are lying in general in society, but they get the distinct
feeling it's happening more. And in 2006 an Associated Press-Ipsos
poll found that while most people say they don't approve of lying, 65
percent of those questioned said it is OK to lie in certain
situations. The world has become accustomed to lying and forgives
politicians when they do it in relationships, LaFollette said. But
it's different when it's a doctor, scientist or an engineer because
people can get hurt, she said.
Casadevall and Caplan pointed to the 1998 study in Lancet by Andrew
Wakefield temporarily linking childhood vaccines to autism - a study
later retracted because it was found to be what another scientific
journal called 'an elaborate fraud.' 'Think about the damage society
took when mothers started to question vaccines,' Casadevall said.
'That's damage and it's still going on.' Reached at home in Texas,
Wakefield, who was banned from practicing medicine in his native Great
Britain and whose claims are contrary to what prevailing established
medical research shows about vaccine and autism, said: 'There was no
fraud and to use this and to use me as a poster child of fraud really
compounds that error.'
Casadevall said his work is about science trying to clean its own
house. And because it's about fraud, he said he did one extra thing
with his study: He sent reviewers not just a summary of their work,
but all the data, 'so they can check on us.'
(c) 2012 The Associated Press