Why are so many scientific papers being retracted?
Take this past week as an example. In Salzburg, a biologist was fired from his university for publishing erroneous information about the structure of an allergen. Meanwhile, questions have arisen regarding a Chinese research team’s discovery of small plant RNA in animal bloodstreams. And, perhaps most amazingly, Computers and Mathematics with Applications withdrew a paper just yesterday for the peculiar crime of having, in their words, “no scientific content.”
Retractions have increased ten-fold over the last decade, according to an October report from Nature. Some in the community are now trying to determine where this dramatic change comes from. The blame has now been placed on numerous parties, including untrustworthy scientists, overworked journal editors, and a sensationalist media.
The answer may lie in past follies rather than current ones. Nature reports that nearly half of all recent retractions are the result of outright plagiarism or falsification, while more than a quarter are due to honest errors on the part of the authors. According to The Journal of Medical Ethics, both types of retractions increased significantly (rather than, for example, plagiarism becoming overwhelmingly prevalent).
It makes sense to designate modern readership as the culprit. The New York Times recently pointed to a strong correlation between the number of times a paper is cited by another article and the likelihood of its being retracted. They argue that increased pressure to publish results in more errors, but, in turn, the scrutiny of a large web audience makes it even more likely that those errors are found.
While added exposure is probably part of the problem, this explanation feels incomplete. The process of choosing articles for publication is intended to exclude problematic papers, and it’s surprising that so many mistakes should make it to print. Whether there were always this many errors or not, editors should learn to spot them earlier.
This starts with knowing what errors to look for. One Greek doctor, John Ioannidis, has devoted his career to uncovering common mistakes in medical research. He has determined that many misleading conclusions are due to over-reliance on vast databases of information, inadequately short studies, reliance on inexact self-reported measurements, and failure on the part of others to retest others’ work.
“At every step in the process, there is room to distort results, a way to make a stronger claim or to select what is going to be concluded,” Ioannidis told The Atlantic.
Additionally, if editors decide to give more prominence to papers that retest previous studies, it follows that people will spend more time writing them. With the aforementioned growing pressure to publish, scientists will always submit papers that they think have the best chance of being chosen.
When it comes to preventing these mistakes to being made, however, the solution is less certain.