Software that uncovers suspicious papers will do little for a community that does not confront organized research fraud, says Jennifer Byrne.
From where I work at the University of Sydney, you cannot see the ocean. However, in Australia, the ocean is part of our national consciousness. This is perhaps why I think of the research literature as an ocean, linking researchers in disparate yet ultimately connected fields. Just as there is growing alarm about our rising, polluted oceans, scientists are increasingly talking about the swelling research literature and its contamination by incorrect research results.
It makes sense for institutional professional development and resource material to discuss good faith errors, mistakes and small missteps. Such problems do occur, they can be costly for researchers and are easily avoided. Ironically talking to early career researchers, higher degree candidates and more experienced researchers about fraud can distract from the message that mistakes can harm careers. Such fraud is rare, but it does occur. So, Jennifer’s point is an important one. We also need mechanisms that detect and act upon systemic fraud.
In 2015, I discovered several papers had been written about a gene that I and my colleagues first reported in 1998. All were by different authors based in China, but contained shared and strange irregularities. They also used highly similar language and figures. I think the papers came from third parties working for profit, fuelled by the pressure on authors to meet unrealistic publication expectations. (Such operations have been identified by investigative journalists.) I also think that, with most of the protein-coding and non-protein-coding genes in the human genome currently understudied, such third parties are targeting less-well-known human genes to produce low-value and possibly fraudulent papers.