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October 02, 2012 11:12 PM The Real Story Behind Scientific Retractions

By Daniel Luzer

The pressure on academics to perform and publish research would presumably result in a lot of rather crappy research, particularly of the it-turns-out-I-didn’t-account-for-this-factor variety. It turns out, however, that’s it not errors that account for most scientific retractions; it’s just straight up fraud. As in, they just made stuff up.

According to new paper by researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University:

The paper’s findings show as a percentage of all scientific articles published, retractions for fraud or suspected fraud have increased 10-fold since 1975. The study, from a collaboration between three scientists including one at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University, published online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
The researchers found that about 21 percent of the retractions were attributable to error, while 67 percent were due to misconduct, including fraud or suspected fraud (43 percent), duplicate publication (14 percent), and plagiarism (10 percent). Miscellaneous or unknown reasons accounted for the remaining 12 percent.

It’s apparently rather difficult to tell when journals have retracted papers for misconduct like falsifying data. The authors of the studies write the retraction notices themselves. The researchers commonly write something like “we regret we have to retract our paper because the work is not reproducible.” But what does that really mean?

As Arturo Casadevall, professor of microbiology & immunology and professor of medicine at Einstein, explained, this pretty misleading: “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.”

Apparently only 38 of the world’s laboratories account for almost half, 43 percent, of all scientific retractions. Retractions are particularly common among the world’s more prestigious publications.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer