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Scientists behaving badly — more retractions are cheats, not mistakes

Who said scientific experts should be trusted?

Is corruption endemic? Fully 43% of retractions in the life science and medical research journals are due to fraud or suspected fraud.

Misconduct accounts for the majority of retracted scientific publications

Ferric C. Fang R. Grant Steen and Arturo Casadevall

PNAS  PNAS 2012 109 (42) 16751-16752; doi:10.1073/iti4212109


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 retractions were 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 scientific articles retracted because of fraud has increased ∼10-fold since 1975. Retractions exhibit distinctive temporal and geographic patterns that may reveal underlying causes.

Plus this published correction.

RetractionWatch points out that this could be the tip of the iceberg

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. He concludes:

A pooled weighted average of 1.97% (N = 7, 95%CI: 0.86–4.45) of scientists admitted to have fabricated, falsified or modified data or results at least once –a serious form of misconduct by any standard– and up to 33.7% admitted other questionable research practices. In surveys asking about the behaviour of colleagues, admission rates were 14.12% (N = 12, 95% CI: 9.91–19.72) for falsification, and up to 72% for other questionable research practices. Meta-regression showed that self reports surveys, surveys using the words “falsification” or “fabrication”, and mailed surveys yielded lower percentages of misconduct. When these factors were controlled for, misconduct was reported more frequently by medical/pharmacological researchers than others.

Considering that these surveys ask sensitive questions and have other limitations, it appears likely that this is a conservative estimate of the true prevalence of scientific misconduct.

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.

This research applies to life science and medical papers. Where are the studies on retractions in the world of climate science?
At least in medicine, companies that compete with each other would have an interest in exposing fraud related to competitor’s products. In climate science, as we have discussed so many times, the monopolistic forces line up on one side of the table, big-government wants more power, big-bankers want more carbon markets, big-renewables depend on the Co2 scare for their existence, big-UN committees need it to justify big-junkets and big-jobs. And many in big-Green and big-media have dug their graves on this — their reputations and credibility dependent on them not being seen as “the gullible sods who fell for it”. It’s a life and death kind of thing for careers. Only those who had the humility to say the science was not yet done and dusted have a way out.

This PNAS paper was mentioned in yesterday’s thread about the shut-down of the Science Fraud site. Clearly we need better mechanisms to protect and encourage whistleblowers and to report possible fraud.



Ferric C. Fang R. Grant Steen and Arturo Casadevall (2012): Misconduct accounts for the majority of retracted scientific publications  PNAS   2012 109 (42) 16751-16752; doi:10.1073/iti4212109

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