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Q&A: The Impact of Retractions

Is the pressure of the publish-or-perish mentality driving more researchers to commit misconduct?

By | August 11, 2011

Ferric Fang

After six articles from a single research group—the laboratory of Naoki Mori at the University of the Ryukyus in Japan—were retracted from Infection and Immunity earlier this year, Editor-in-Chief Ferric Fang did some soul searching. He and Arturo Casadevall, editor-in-chief of the American Society for Microbiology journal mBio and Fang’s long-time friend and colleague, decided to explore the issue more deeply in an editorial published this week (August 8) in Infection and Immunity.

Fang, a bacteriologist at the University of Washington, recently talked with The Scientist about the rising number of retractions, why high profile journals may have more retractions, and what pressures lead some scientists to fudge their data.

The Scientist: Tell me a little more about the retractions in the Infection and Immunity articles.

Ferric Fang: [An investigation by the investigator’s institution found that] gel pictures had been cut and pasted, and then misrepresented to be different things. We reviewed all the manuscripts and came to the conclusion that the institution was correct. At this point we notified the investigator of our findings and we invited him to reply and try to explain the findings. Through this discussion, we reached our conclusion that in fact there had been inappropriate manipulation of these figures.

This led us to do some soul searching about why misconduct occurs and whether retractions are really all there is to it—and they’re pretty rare—or whether there’s a lot more misconduct going on, and retractions are the tip of the iceberg. And I’m sorry to say I’ve come more or less to the latter conclusion.

TS: In your editorial, you note that retractions are on the rise. Why is that, and is there any way to reverse the trend?

FF: I think it behooves scientists to take a look at the way we have organized the scientific community and the kinds of pressure we put on scientists. We have a situation now where people’s careers are on the line, it’s very difficult to get funding, and getting funding is dependent on publication. They’re human beings and if we put them under extraordinary pressures, they may in some cases yield to bad behavior.

 TS: You also developed the “retraction index,” a measure of a given journal’s retraction rate, which showed the rate of retraction was positively correlated with the impact factor of the journal. Why do you think that is?

FF: The idea to look at the correlation between the number of retractions and journal impact factor was first suggested by my co-author, Arturo Casadevall. One of the reasons we devised this retraction index is the idea that maybe the pressures to try to get papers in prestigious journals was a driving force in encouraging people to engage in misconduct. I’m not excusing the behavior by any means at all.  But I know of cases, for example, where scientists have committed misconduct, who if they’re not successful in their research, they’ll lose their job and they might be deported from the country. So these are extraordinary pressures that are being put on people. I don’t think it’s going to bring out the best science—it’s going to discourage a lot of things we want to have in science, like people feeling free to explore and take chances.

TS: Is it possible that there are more people looking at those top-tier journals, so the mistakes are just caught more?

FF: That’s certainly a possibility. Extraordinary claims require a higher bar before the scientific community accepts them, and I think some of this work that’s published in the glamour mag journals—Science, Nature, Cell—are in those journals because they’re sensational: things like the arsenic using bacterium for example, or the novel murine virus that was associated with chronic fatigue syndrome. These claims, because they have such enormous implications and because they’re so sensational, they’re going to be subjected to a very high level of scrutiny. If that claim was made in an obscure journal, it might take a longer time [to] attract attention.

TS: Reviewers are the main route to catch misconduct before publication, but retractions are on the rise. Is there a better system?

FF: I don’t know that there is a better system… We’ve had a number of times where questions have been raised about whether data are fishy or not, and we haven’t been able to conclusively establish that. And you don’t have access to the primary data, right? You don’t have the lab notebook, you’re not there at the bench when the person is doing that experiment.

Reviewers may call into question certain observations, but if you have a single lane in a gel that’s beautifully spliced in but is actually lifted from another paper in another field, from the same lab four years earlier in a completely different journal, it will just take dumb luck for the reviewer to realize that.

TS: What if people just submitted their raw data when they submitted a paper?

FF: I think it would make the job of reviewing incredibly more challenging. But I don’t think even that can completely solve the problem. You don’t have any way of knowing that what is sent to you is really complete or accurate. If somebody is bound and determined to commit misconduct, they’re going to be very difficult to detect.

F. Fang, A. Casadevall, “Retracted science and the retraction index,” Infection and Immunity, doi:10.1128/IAI.05661-11, 2011.

 

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Comments

Avatar of: choons

choons

Posts: 6

August 12, 2011

The solution is no mystery- falsify results and you are banned from publishing again. Sure the pressure is extraordinary, it's that way everywhere in every profession. I hope the science community doesn't make the mistake the SEC did by not enforcing severe penalties for outright fraud in the financial sector. Consider the people suffering from the same cancers this researcher likely delayed help coming to by misleading other scientists. 

Avatar of: Jerry R

Anonymous

August 12, 2011

This is a little off topic but I never understood this obsession with Nature, Cell and Science.  

Avatar of: RichardPatrock

RichardPatrock

Posts: 52

August 12, 2011

Francis Bacon talked about four 'idols'  which get in the way of advancing knowledge: the idol of the marketplace, idol of the tribe, idol of the cave and idol of the theatre (/www.sirbacon.org/links/4idols..... Idol of the theatre is the reason why arsenic-thriving bacteria got on the front page of the scientific world.  The idea was contrary to relatively unquestioned paradigm of the biological necessity of phosphorus.  Here is an example of where science thrives since it is capable of policing itself in examining assumptions.  It appears that the paradigm still holds, though and arsenic was just a sideshow. Downright cheating, on the other hand, has to be distinguished from the other idols that mask reality. Submitting raw data by itself wouldn't help much in itself since the error in a conclusion can be made by the authors not writing down inconvenient facts even if they saw them.  How could you tell if they weren't even looking?  Is this cheating?  I would argue it is and it informs too much of what we assume as knowledge.  How can I say that?  Take any definition in say, ecology and tweak it.  Then see how the results shake out.

Avatar of: Climate Realist

Anonymous

August 12, 2011

This trend isn't limited to the biological sciences.  It's rampant in many of the papers generated to fabricate alarm supporting a global warming crisis--or catastophic climate change--whatever they are calling their crisis this year--and some of the worst offenders are from State and Federal regulatory agencies. The assumptions supporting elevating the status of polar bears from vulnerable to threatend on the Endangered Species list are purely speculative and the decision defies all logic when considered against the reality that the polar bear populations have continued to increase from around 800 in the 1980's to well beyond 2,100 today when Fish & Wildlife officials decided the "evidence" justified an action that is more likely tied to global warming alarmists' push to exert control over the polar bear's entire habitat.  Similarly, climate model output is being driven by Federal, Foundation, and NGO grant money and virtually none of it flows to researchers studying global warming, but to those claiming to be able to show that it's real!  The models ignore the fact that global temperature variation has always occurred and will continue to occur on a planet which has never had a stable and static climate. 

Avatar of: Dr. Yeast

Anonymous

August 12, 2011

 I agree with 'choons': ban them from ever publishing or getting funded ever again (from any journal or any funding source). We should have something like the bar for lawyers, and when you are found guilty of misconduct, you should be disbarred from science FOR EVER. Drastic, but it would deter a lot of fraud and misconduct!

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

August 12, 2011

The solution is no mystery- falsify results and you are banned from publishing again. Sure the pressure is extraordinary, it's that way everywhere in every profession. I hope the science community doesn't make the mistake the SEC did by not enforcing severe penalties for outright fraud in the financial sector. Consider the people suffering from the same cancers this researcher likely delayed help coming to by misleading other scientists. 

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

August 12, 2011

This is a little off topic but I never understood this obsession with Nature, Cell and Science.  

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

August 12, 2011

Francis Bacon talked about four 'idols'  which get in the way of advancing knowledge: the idol of the marketplace, idol of the tribe, idol of the cave and idol of the theatre (/www.sirbacon.org/links/4idols..... Idol of the theatre is the reason why arsenic-thriving bacteria got on the front page of the scientific world.  The idea was contrary to relatively unquestioned paradigm of the biological necessity of phosphorus.  Here is an example of where science thrives since it is capable of policing itself in examining assumptions.  It appears that the paradigm still holds, though and arsenic was just a sideshow. Downright cheating, on the other hand, has to be distinguished from the other idols that mask reality. Submitting raw data by itself wouldn't help much in itself since the error in a conclusion can be made by the authors not writing down inconvenient facts even if they saw them.  How could you tell if they weren't even looking?  Is this cheating?  I would argue it is and it informs too much of what we assume as knowledge.  How can I say that?  Take any definition in say, ecology and tweak it.  Then see how the results shake out.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

August 12, 2011

This trend isn't limited to the biological sciences.  It's rampant in many of the papers generated to fabricate alarm supporting a global warming crisis--or catastophic climate change--whatever they are calling their crisis this year--and some of the worst offenders are from State and Federal regulatory agencies. The assumptions supporting elevating the status of polar bears from vulnerable to threatend on the Endangered Species list are purely speculative and the decision defies all logic when considered against the reality that the polar bear populations have continued to increase from around 800 in the 1980's to well beyond 2,100 today when Fish & Wildlife officials decided the "evidence" justified an action that is more likely tied to global warming alarmists' push to exert control over the polar bear's entire habitat.  Similarly, climate model output is being driven by Federal, Foundation, and NGO grant money and virtually none of it flows to researchers studying global warming, but to those claiming to be able to show that it's real!  The models ignore the fact that global temperature variation has always occurred and will continue to occur on a planet which has never had a stable and static climate. 

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

August 12, 2011

 I agree with 'choons': ban them from ever publishing or getting funded ever again (from any journal or any funding source). We should have something like the bar for lawyers, and when you are found guilty of misconduct, you should be disbarred from science FOR EVER. Drastic, but it would deter a lot of fraud and misconduct!

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

August 12, 2011

The solution is no mystery- falsify results and you are banned from publishing again. Sure the pressure is extraordinary, it's that way everywhere in every profession. I hope the science community doesn't make the mistake the SEC did by not enforcing severe penalties for outright fraud in the financial sector. Consider the people suffering from the same cancers this researcher likely delayed help coming to by misleading other scientists. 

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

August 12, 2011

This is a little off topic but I never understood this obsession with Nature, Cell and Science.  

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

August 12, 2011

Francis Bacon talked about four 'idols'  which get in the way of advancing knowledge: the idol of the marketplace, idol of the tribe, idol of the cave and idol of the theatre (/www.sirbacon.org/links/4idols..... Idol of the theatre is the reason why arsenic-thriving bacteria got on the front page of the scientific world.  The idea was contrary to relatively unquestioned paradigm of the biological necessity of phosphorus.  Here is an example of where science thrives since it is capable of policing itself in examining assumptions.  It appears that the paradigm still holds, though and arsenic was just a sideshow. Downright cheating, on the other hand, has to be distinguished from the other idols that mask reality. Submitting raw data by itself wouldn't help much in itself since the error in a conclusion can be made by the authors not writing down inconvenient facts even if they saw them.  How could you tell if they weren't even looking?  Is this cheating?  I would argue it is and it informs too much of what we assume as knowledge.  How can I say that?  Take any definition in say, ecology and tweak it.  Then see how the results shake out.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

August 12, 2011

This trend isn't limited to the biological sciences.  It's rampant in many of the papers generated to fabricate alarm supporting a global warming crisis--or catastophic climate change--whatever they are calling their crisis this year--and some of the worst offenders are from State and Federal regulatory agencies. The assumptions supporting elevating the status of polar bears from vulnerable to threatend on the Endangered Species list are purely speculative and the decision defies all logic when considered against the reality that the polar bear populations have continued to increase from around 800 in the 1980's to well beyond 2,100 today when Fish & Wildlife officials decided the "evidence" justified an action that is more likely tied to global warming alarmists' push to exert control over the polar bear's entire habitat.  Similarly, climate model output is being driven by Federal, Foundation, and NGO grant money and virtually none of it flows to researchers studying global warming, but to those claiming to be able to show that it's real!  The models ignore the fact that global temperature variation has always occurred and will continue to occur on a planet which has never had a stable and static climate. 

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

August 12, 2011

 I agree with 'choons': ban them from ever publishing or getting funded ever again (from any journal or any funding source). We should have something like the bar for lawyers, and when you are found guilty of misconduct, you should be disbarred from science FOR EVER. Drastic, but it would deter a lot of fraud and misconduct!

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

August 13, 2011

Surely it would be reasonably simple for the journal's editorial team to get pictures that are in an accepted article, scanned by some outside service to see if they have been manipulated?  If enough people were asking, it would be a good service to provide, and should in any case be pretty cheap?

Providing original gel pictures - for example - should also be done: I have a gel photographic setup in my lab which takes digital , and have metadata associated with the pictures that are not editable - you have to copy them and change format in order to manipulate them.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

August 13, 2011

Punishing cannot solve the problem. People just become more careful in cheating. The root of the problem is our entire living system. Science becomes a competition like sports. What on earth are the scientists competing about? Their promotion, grants or fame? Give me a break. Science is supposed to provide knowledge and solve human problems, not for promotion or profits.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

August 13, 2011

This is so totally off the point it is a mystery why you thought it was necessary to comment at all.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

August 13, 2011

Surely it would be reasonably simple for the journal's editorial team to get pictures that are in an accepted article, scanned by some outside service to see if they have been manipulated?  If enough people were asking, it would be a good service to provide, and should in any case be pretty cheap?

Providing original gel pictures - for example - should also be done: I have a gel photographic setup in my lab which takes digital , and have metadata associated with the pictures that are not editable - you have to copy them and change format in order to manipulate them.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

August 13, 2011

Punishing cannot solve the problem. People just become more careful in cheating. The root of the problem is our entire living system. Science becomes a competition like sports. What on earth are the scientists competing about? Their promotion, grants or fame? Give me a break. Science is supposed to provide knowledge and solve human problems, not for promotion or profits.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

August 13, 2011

This is so totally off the point it is a mystery why you thought it was necessary to comment at all.

Avatar of: Ed Rybicki

Ed Rybicki

Posts: 82

August 13, 2011

Surely it would be reasonably simple for the journal's editorial team to get pictures that are in an accepted article, scanned by some outside service to see if they have been manipulated?  If enough people were asking, it would be a good service to provide, and should in any case be pretty cheap?

Providing original gel pictures - for example - should also be done: I have a gel photographic setup in my lab which takes digital , and have metadata associated with the pictures that are not editable - you have to copy them and change format in order to manipulate them.

Avatar of: Gtjhuang

Anonymous

August 13, 2011

Punishing cannot solve the problem. People just become more careful in cheating. The root of the problem is our entire living system. Science becomes a competition like sports. What on earth are the scientists competing about? Their promotion, grants or fame? Give me a break. Science is supposed to provide knowledge and solve human problems, not for promotion or profits.

Avatar of: Ed Rybicki

Ed Rybicki

Posts: 82

August 13, 2011

This is so totally off the point it is a mystery why you thought it was necessary to comment at all.

Avatar of: Suresh

Anonymous

August 15, 2011

One problem is that many universities themselves have started pressuring researchers to publish like crazy and conveniently overlook fraud and also commit it themselves.  Researchers submit the same data to several journals and sign the statement saying they are not submitting that data anywhere else.  Another problem is that many journals are cropping up and are competing with the more established ones for space. 

These journals don't take firm or sometimes any action even if they are told about such multiple submissions and prefer to act like they don't know anything.  On top of this is the crony network which allows many big shots to publish sub-standard or shady data in journals where their friends are editors or where they themselves are editors.  Even if these journal editors and corresponding authors are questioned about their erroneous interpretations and the lack of some data, they maintain silence and refuse to do anything about it. 

The peer review system also seems to increasingly safeguard the interests of these reviewers and their friends so that they block publication of data submitted by younger scientists in the area but overlook the problems in their own friends' data.  And since the editors have a right to pick the reviewers, shady business continues under big brand labels and the younger researchers learn from this and mould themselves accordingly. 

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

August 15, 2011

One problem is that many universities themselves have started pressuring researchers to publish like crazy and conveniently overlook fraud and also commit it themselves.  Researchers submit the same data to several journals and sign the statement saying they are not submitting that data anywhere else.  Another problem is that many journals are cropping up and are competing with the more established ones for space. 

These journals don't take firm or sometimes any action even if they are told about such multiple submissions and prefer to act like they don't know anything.  On top of this is the crony network which allows many big shots to publish sub-standard or shady data in journals where their friends are editors or where they themselves are editors.  Even if these journal editors and corresponding authors are questioned about their erroneous interpretations and the lack of some data, they maintain silence and refuse to do anything about it. 

The peer review system also seems to increasingly safeguard the interests of these reviewers and their friends so that they block publication of data submitted by younger scientists in the area but overlook the problems in their own friends' data.  And since the editors have a right to pick the reviewers, shady business continues under big brand labels and the younger researchers learn from this and mould themselves accordingly. 

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

August 15, 2011

One problem is that many universities themselves have started pressuring researchers to publish like crazy and conveniently overlook fraud and also commit it themselves.  Researchers submit the same data to several journals and sign the statement saying they are not submitting that data anywhere else.  Another problem is that many journals are cropping up and are competing with the more established ones for space. 

These journals don't take firm or sometimes any action even if they are told about such multiple submissions and prefer to act like they don't know anything.  On top of this is the crony network which allows many big shots to publish sub-standard or shady data in journals where their friends are editors or where they themselves are editors.  Even if these journal editors and corresponding authors are questioned about their erroneous interpretations and the lack of some data, they maintain silence and refuse to do anything about it. 

The peer review system also seems to increasingly safeguard the interests of these reviewers and their friends so that they block publication of data submitted by younger scientists in the area but overlook the problems in their own friends' data.  And since the editors have a right to pick the reviewers, shady business continues under big brand labels and the younger researchers learn from this and mould themselves accordingly. 

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