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14Sep 2012

Science fraud and misconduct: the threat to science

Science fraud and misconduct: the threat to science

A 3,000 word story by Alok Jha in The Guardian is a stark examination of how seriously fraud and misconduct are threatening the scientific enterprise.

We've been told that misconduct is on the rise, but when Jha starts with the laundry list of recent offenses, he shows us how common it is becoming. He leads with the retractions and fabrications of the Dutch researchers Dirk Smeesters and Diederik Stapel, two separate cases in the last year, which probably attracted more attention to Dutch research than any legitimate research that's been done there in recent years. 

He also looks at measures of malfeasance, such as a study in which 1.97% of researchers admitted to having "fabricated, falsified or modified data or results at least once." In 2006, an analysis of images in the Journal of Cell Biology determined that 1% "had been deliberately falsified."

Jha looks at other, related problems, such as journal editors' interest in publishing positive studies, and their reluctance to publish studies that refute questionable claims.

By putting so many examples and issues together in one story, Jha makes plain that the problem of deceit and misconduct is far more serious than we might have thought.

-Paul Raeburn


As we stated in our comment on the original article in The Guardian:

"The results of the 2006 analysis by The Journal of Cell Biology are reported incorrectly in the above statement, "A 2006 analysis of the images published in the Journal of Cell Biology found that about 1% had been deliberately falsified." Our systematic screening of images in articles accepted for publication in the Journal showed then and continues to show that 1% of articles have at least one image that has been manipulated in a way that affects the interpretation of the data. This is far less than 1% of all images, given the fact that most articles have at least 10 figures with multiple panels. We also do not draw any conclusions regarding the intent of the person who did the manipulation."

Liz Williams, Executive Editor, The Journal of Cell Biology
Mike Rossner, Executive Director, The Rockefeller University Press

I agree, John. Mainly, I thought the story did a service by wrapping up where we're at and looking at what we do know about fraud--even if hard numbers are hard to come by. And I thought the business about fraud becoming more common was in a quote; I didn't see Alok assert that, but I might be missing it.

It's a little like trying to figure out whether autism is on the rise, isn't it?

Sorry Paul--I respect Alok but I think he's still drawing on a thin evidence base and doesn't at all show "how common it [fraud] is becoming." I think we simply don't know how big a problem fraud is in science or if it is becoming more common. The 1.97% figure isn't new research on the issue--it's a meta-analysis of 20+ studies/surveys of varying quality and it was conducted in 2009. The JCB image study is from 2006. So both studies came before the big economic meltdown, which may have increased pressure on scientists--but who knows because fraud data is hard to get. I will agree that the perception of fraud is on the rise, thanks partly to Retraction Watch, other blogs and ease of disseminating information. I want to stress I'm not suggesting fraud isn't a significant issue in science--just that it's far from clear we live in a special time with regard to it.

Quite possible, I would think. Jha also wonders whether increased competitive and financial pressures could be making fraud more common.

Is it possible that fraud is simply becoming easier to catch?

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