Fraudulent Science: What’s Retracted, What Is Not

Alliance for Human Research Protection (AHRP)

“Critics who deplore the commercialization of medical research have raised concerns about scientific fraud and misconduct that are undermining the integrity of the medical-scientific literature, and the practice of “evidence-based medicine”— which relies on published journal reports. Recent analyses of retractions of published peer-reviewed journal reports provide supportive evidence for those critics.

Retractions from journals are not routine occurrences–journal editors are extremely reluctant to retract articles, a tacit acknowledgment of their own gate-keeping failure–and fear of reprisals from the sponsors of those retracted trial reports. Many journals don’t even have retraction policies, and the ones that do publish critical notices of retraction long after the original paper appeared—without providing explicit information as to why they are being retracted.

Judging by analyses showing that the number of retractions during the past ten years has skyrocketed, it is reasonable to conclude that the self-regulating peer review system suffers from serious underlying defects.

Indeed, the frequency of retractions prompted Ivan Oransky and Ivan Marcus to establish a blog (2010) called  “Retraction Watch.”  Another website that tracks the PubMed database—by Neil Saunders, an Australian scientist—found that since 1977, the number of retractions increased by a factor of 30, while publications increased fourfold.

An article in the Science section of The New York Times, “A Sharp Rise in Retractions Calls for Reform” (April 16, 2012) [1] highlighted the concerns raised by two science journal editors–Dr. Ferric Fang, editor in chief of Infection and Immunity Journal, and Dr. Arturo Casadevall, editor in chief of mBio, who are spearheading a call for reform after their search for retracted reports in 17 journals found 740 retractions between 2001 and 2009. [2]  The frequency of retraction varied among the journals: NEJM, Cell, Science and Nature had the highest number of retractions between 2001 and 2010.

Drs. Fang and Casadevall reached the conclusion that not only were retractions rising at an alarming rate, but that retractions were just a manifestation of a much more profound problem — “a symptom of a dysfunctional scientific climate.”  They presented their concerns before National Academies of Sciences committee on science, technology and the law in March. They describe some of the corrosive pressures that academic scientists face since the culture in academia was transformed into a competitive, secretive business environment where quantity is rewarded—not quality. “What people do is they count papers, and they look at the prestige of the journal in which the research is published, and they see how many grant dollars scientists have, and if they don’t have funding, they don’t get promoted…It’s not about the quality of the research. …”

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