The Washington Post reported on the equivalent of an ongoing academic thriller unfurling at Johns Hopkins earlier this week, involving a researcher who alleges he was fired in retaliation for his criticism of flawed methodology — later used in an article published in Nature, one of most prestigious research journals — and the suicide of the primary author of the research while drafting a response to that criticism.
But while the full story remains to play out — Johns Hopkins refuses to comment and Nature has been quiet besides saying they expect to release a response in the future — this seedy tale can help bring one dark underbelly of the modern research world to light: How the academic politics of retraction and the pressure to publish may have an adverse effect on the quality of modern research.
A study published last year by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences noted that there has been a tenfold increase in scientific articles retracted due to fraud since 1975. Of the over 2000 biomedical and life-science retracted research articles studied, 21.3 percent of them were attributed to errors while 67.4 percent were due to researcher misconduct. The Washington Post discussed the issue with one of the study’s authors, Ferric C. Fang:
“Fang said retractions may be rising because it is simply easier to cheat in an era of digital images, which can be easily manipulated. But he said the increase is caused at least in part by the growing competition for publication and for NIH grant money.
He noted that in the 1960s, about two out of three NIH grant requests were funded; today, the success rate for applicants for research funding is about one in five. At the same time, getting work published in the most esteemed journals, such as Nature, has become a “fetish” for some scientists, Fang said.”
While public funds support a majority of basic research in the U.S., those resources have been dwindling for years and took a significant hit in the sequester. That increase in competitiveness pressures researchers to present results, undoubtedly leading to some researchers falsifying their data in order to preserve their slice of the dwindling public research pie — also known as fraud. And when fraudulent research makes it through the publication process, it becomes part of the knowledge base built upon by other researchers around the world. For every fraudulent piece of research published, many more may rely on faulty grounding for future research projects, thus intellectually contaminating research areas with incorrectly drawn conclusions and impeding future advances.
The pitfalls of fraudulent research aren’t just theoretical: In the late 1990s, a medical researcher “misrepresented or altered the medical histories of all 12 of the patients” in a much-publicized study linking childhood vaccination to autism, in what some other researchers have called “the most damaging medical hoax of the last 100 years.” Between when the study was first came out and when it was disproved and retracted, there was a notable drop in youth vaccinations — which is bad for the health of our nation’s children, and the public at large.
Yet despite the severity of the problem and the great stakes at play, there is no centralized database to track these retractions — although new resources have emerged, like Retraction Watch, a blog run by two health journalists keeping tabs on the ongoing drama.