The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) today published a comprehensive review of retracted research papers in biomedicine and the life sciences. The study, which looked at over 2,000 biomedical and life science papers listed by the PubMed database as retracted, found that roughly two-thirds of retractions were because of fraud or suspected fraud. The research also found that the number of retractions for reasons of misconduct has increased roughly tenfold since 1975.
Fang, F. C., Steen, R. G. & Casadevall, A. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA (2012) Misconduct accounts for the majority of retracted scientiﬁc publications (Abstract; full article requires subscription)
This highly useful paper quantifies trends which UKRIO has observed through its extensive case work. Its findings fit with what UKRIO has said previously on this issue: that while many articles are withdrawn because of mistakes, most are retracted because of misconduct.
UK research is not rife with fraud but there is no room for complacency. The principles of good research practice – such as being honest and objective – are often thought to be obvious. Studies like this show that good research practice should be self-evident but often isn’t.
There are no quick fixes. No-one is calling for the micro-management of researchers – they have enough bureaucracy and burdens to deal with as it is. What we need is a more sustained and visible effort to promote research integrity. It is vital to educate researchers in good research practice and provide dedicated support if problems do arise, services that UKRIO has been providing for some years and which have been welcomed by the research community.
The rise in retractions observed in this study could reflect a real increase in misconduct or, more likely, an increase in detection compared to 20-30 years ago. But we still need to be concerned about whether there is under-detection of misconduct – we cannot assume that every questionable paper is being picked up. We also need to understand more about whether the way we do research can inadvertently foster poor practice – what pressures drive researchers to cut corners or commit fraud. Guidance for researchers and institutions must make it clear that there should never be any stigma attached to seeking help, to coming forward and admitting to problems or raising concerns about research.
It is worrying that this study found that many retraction notices were ‘uninformative or opaque’. This is not helpful to readers and editors and is contrary to published guidance, such as UKRIO’s Guidance for Researchers on Retractions in Academic Journals and COPE’s Retraction Guidelines for journal editors. Equally concerning is that, in line with previous works, this study shows that some papers are frequently quoted after they have been retracted. The system is still not working as well as it could.
Update: the study has been covered by a variety of media outlets, including Nature, the New York Times and the Guardian. The Guardian article includes the views of James Parry, Chief Executive of UKRIO.