(NaturalNews) Researchers say it's still rare, but fraud in scientific research is climbing at an alarming rate nonetheless. What's more, according to a new study which has documented the trend, researchers can't say why it's happening.
An examination of retractions in medical and biological peer-reviewed publications and journals found the percentage of studies withdrawn due to fraud or suspected fraud has increased dramatically since the mid-1970s, The Associated Press reported recently, citing data from the study.
In 1976, there were fewer than 10 fraud retractions for every one million studies published; by 2007, fraud retractions had grown to 96 per one million, the study found.
While the study's authors can't explain the phenomenon, they and outside experts point to additional pressure for researchers to make a name for themselves in science in order to boost funding and gain recognition. Also, they say there appears to be a subtle rise in deception in society in general that science may be mirroring.
Fraud is rare but in areas of great importance
The authors said fraud in life sciences research is very infrequent, being committed by just a few dozen cheats. But that can cause big problems nonetheless, said Arturo Casadevall, a professor of microbiology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.
Casadevall, the study's lead author, and his team examined the reasons for 2,047 retractions among several million studies published in journals and kept in a government database for medical-centric research.
The number one cause of those retractions was fraud, which accounted for 43 percent of them. When fraud was joined with other areas of academic misconduct like plagiarism, that accounted for about two of three retractions, according to the study.
"Very few people are doing it, but when they do it, they are doing it in areas that are very important," Casadevall said. "And when these things come out, society loses faith in science."
He added that some of the more prominent retractions for fraud included nine separate studies on much-vaunted research at Duke University regarding cancer treatment, as well as work by a South Korean expert at cloning who was later convicted of embezzlement and buying human eggs illegally for research.
The New York researcher says he was surprised at his findings because he didn't set out looking for fraud. Rather, he said he had planned to examine the most common avoidable errors that led to retractions.
Other studies have also shown a rise in retractions, but none of them have found that scientific misconduct or academic dishonesty was the primary cause, Nicholas Steneck, director of the research ethics program at the University of Michigan, who was not involved in the study by Casadevall, told the AP. He added that the current study's results show a need for more comprehensive reporting of retractions by the scientific journals themselves.
Steneck and others said the findings hint that better detection of scientific fraud may be occurring overall.
Casadevall noted that most "scientists out there are well meaning and honest people who are going to be totally appalled by" his findings, which were published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which had the second-most retracted articles for all reasons, after the journal Science.
The Journal of Biological Chemistry was the publication with the most retractions for fraud.
Money, rewards bring more fraud
Casadevall said even if society in general has become more deceptive, "I used to think that science was on a different plane."
"But," he continued, "I think science is like everybody else and that we are susceptible to the same pressures."
In science; however, "there's a disproportionate reward system," so if researchers are published in key journals of prominence they're more likely to get key jobs and win funding, making temptations to deceive stronger.
"Bigger money makes for bigger reasons for fraud," said New York University bioethicist Arthur Caplan, according to the AP. "More fame, more potential for profit... Some of the cheating and fraud is not too dissimilar to the cheating and fraud we've seen in banking."