Despite recent scandals of research misconduct and error, the academic world still seems determined to look the other way
Scientific misconduct has enjoyed some limelight lately. The president of Stanford, Marc Tessier-Lavigne, resigned last month after a series of investigations exposed serious problems in his research; an independent review of Tessier-Lavigne’s work found no evidence that he falsified data himself but concluded that his research failed standards “of scientific rigor and process” and that he failed to correct the record on multiple occasions.
The amount of questionable research practices and the growing number is incredibly concerning. In this piece, Retraction Watch, co-founders Ivan Oransky & Adam Marcus reflect upon this problem and why we all should be concerned. Dodgy research can lead to compromised treatments and nonsense theories underpinning treatments, services and policies. The problems with the research may result in retractions of the research outputs. Still, as we have reported before, the retraction process and the continued citation of retracted papers can perpetuate the problem.
Of course, scientific misconduct does not happen only at Stanford and Harvard. Of the nearly 5,500 retractions we catalogued in 2022, and the thousands of cases we have reported on since launching our watchdog website Retraction Watch in 2010, the vast majority involve researchers at institutions without anywhere near Stanford and Harvard’s pedigrees.
The number of retractions each year reflects about a tenth of a percent of the papers published in a given year – in other words, one in 1,000. Yet the figure has grown significantly from about 40 retractions in 2000, far outpacing growth in the annual volume of papers published.
Retractions have risen sharply in recent years for two main reasons: first, sleuthing, largely by volunteers who comb academic literature for anomalies, and, second, major publishers’ (belated) recognition that their business models have made them susceptible to paper mills – scientific chop shops that sell everything from authorships to entire manuscripts to researchers who need to publish lest they perish.