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Scientific dishonesty

Number of retracted scientific papers skyrockets: Scientific dishonesty on the rise?

Tuesday, September 17, 2013 by: Ethan A. Huff, staff writer
Tags: scientific dishonesty, retracted papers, science fraud

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(NaturalNews) An increasing number of published scientific papers are being retracted these days, and a cohort of scientists from some of the most prominent research universities in the country wants to know why. To accomplish this goal, they recently published a paper of their own in the open-access, peer-reviewed journal PLoS ONE that takes a closer look at some of the likely reasons why this is the case, reasons which include positive factors like improved plagiarism detection systems, as well negative factors like the potential for increasing scientific dishonesty.

In order to gain a better understanding of the bigger picture of all this, the team first looked at the time intervals between publication and retraction for 2,047 studies retracted from the PubMed database in recent years, which is a good initial indicator of retraction trends. Overall, the average time-to-retraction period was found to be 32.91 months for all retracted studies. But prior to 2002, the average time-to-retraction period was 49.82 months, which is more than double the average for studies published after 2002.

What this suggests, according to the researchers' estimate, is that scientific journals are moving much more swiftly these days at detecting problematic studies and pulling them quickly compared to how they did it a decade ago. This is a positive change, say experts, as it indicates that much more scrutiny is going into the post-publication review process, which in turn means that the quality of published scientific literature may be improving. It would also explain the sudden uptick in retracted papers.

After testing this hypothesis by comparing time-to-retraction rates with the journal impact factor (IF) of the journals in which each study was published, the team confirmed that time-to-retraction rates were, indeed, the lowest for studies published in IF journals. What this indicates, of course, is that journals with the most robust citation rates also tend to be the most scrutinizing of the articles they publish, and for good reason, as they do not want any of their heavily-cited articles to eventually be found fraudulent.

More scientific fraud also linked to uptick in retractions

On the flip side, there is also reason to believe that there are simply more fraudulent, or allegedly fraudulent, articles being presented for publishing these days, and not enough appropriate screening tools available to catch them all -- or the journals themselves are corrupt in some way. According to the same authors, the number of retractions of articles published by authors with only a single other retraction, for instance, has risen considerably. Additionally, the number of first-time offenses is also on the rise.

"The increase in retracted articles appears to reflect changes in the behavior of both authors and institutions," admits the team. "Lower barriers to publication of flawed articles are seen in the increase in number and proportion of retractions by authors with a single retraction. Lower barriers to retraction are apparent in an increase in retraction for 'new' offenses such as plagiarism and a decrease in the time-to-retraction of flawed work."

So what we have then is a mix of both improved detection capacity after studies are published, coupled with a corresponding increase in the number of flawed or fraudulent studies being published in the first place. This would explain the findings of an earlier study published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature, which anticipated at the time a more than 13-fold increase in the number of study retractions to occur in the respected Web of Science, a scholarly tool created by Thomson Reuters.

"In the early 2000s, only about 30 retraction notices appeared annually," wrote the authors in this telling study. "This year (2011), the Web of Science is on track to index more than 400 -- even though the total number of papers published has risen by only 44 percent over the past decade."

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