Cheating in scientific and academic papers is a longstanding problem, but it is hard to read recent headlines and not conclude that it has gotten worse. Falsified or erroneous results have forced authors and editors to retract papers from journals that let themselves be duped into publishing them.
Researchers at some of the nation’s most prestigious universities have been implicated. There are ways to minimize this kind of fraud, but it will require changing the process, from how scientists share their data to how their peers review it and who is allowed to enforce academic standards.
In the latest well-publicized case, the journal Science on Thursday retracted an article, published in December, which had purported to show that gay political canvassers could change conservative voters’ views on same-sex marriage in brief face-to-face conversations. The researchers could not produce the original data necessary to resolve questions about the work.
Cheating is thought to contaminate only a small portion of all the research in this country, but no one knows for sure. Cases that have emerged from the shadows are tracked by Retraction Watch, an independent blog that covers research. In an op-ed article in The Times on May 23, the blog’s co-founders noted that, in each of the past few years, the Office of Research Integrity, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, has sanctioned a dozen or so scientists for misconduct ranging from plagiarism to fabrication of results.
Clearly, this has not been a good year. The journal Environmental Science & Technology corrected a March paper on fracking because the lead scientist failed to disclose funding from an energy company.
In May, The Journal of Clinical Investigation retracted a paper on cancer genetics from a young researcher at the National Cancer Institute because the data was fabricated.
How could this happen? Often a young researcher, driven by the academic imperative to “publish or perish,” fudges the data. In many cases, a senior scientist who is supposed to be monitoring the research pays little attention, content to be listed as one of the authors.
In theory, a journal’s peer reviewers are supposed to detect errors, but they often do not have the critical data needed to check the findings, nor the time to do so, particularly since they are seldom paid.
Sometimes the cases only come to light when a whistle-blower, perhaps a student or researcher in the lab where the cheating occurs, points the finger. The scientific community clearly needs to build a better safety net.
It can start by ensuring that scientists, especially peer reviewers, are allowed to see the underlying data of a paper, which researchers are typically reluctant to share. The federal Office of Research Integrity should be given ample funds and sufficient independence to investigate all major cases that come to its attention.
Another answer to the problem of fraudulent research, though, might be more research. The federal government could sponsor studies to determine how much cheating goes on, how much harm it causes and how best to combat it.
Get more stuff like this
Subscribe to our mailing list and get interesting stuff and updates to your email inbox.