There's been a ten-fold increase in the number of fraud-related retractions of biomedical papers since 1975, putting paid to the idea that it's usually just a case of owning up to an inadvertent error.
In a new analysis claimed to be the most comprehensive of its kind, a US team has concluded that misconduct - such as fraud or suspected fraud, duplicate publication and plagiarism - is responsible for two-thirds of all retractions.
"Biomedical research has become a winner-take-all game — one with perverse incentives that entice scientists to cut corners and, in some instances, falsify data or commit other acts of misconduct," says senior author Arturo Casadevall of Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
The study reviewed 2,047 papers retracted from the biomedical literature through May 2012, and consulted the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Office of Research Integrity and Retractionwatch.com to establish the cause.
And the team found that about 21 percent of the retractions were attributable to error, while 67 percent were due to misconduct, including fraud or suspected fraud (43 percent), duplicate publication (14 percent), and plagiarism (10 percent). Miscellaneous or unknown reasons accounted for the remaining 12 percent.
"What's troubling is that the more skilful the fraud, the less likely that it will be discovered, so there likely are more fraudulent papers out there that haven't yet been detected and retracted," says Casadevall.
Earlier studies that underestimated the extent of scientific misconduct, he says, have relied solely on the journals' retraction notices - which are written by the papers' authors.
"Authors commonly write, ‘We regret we have to retract our paper because the work is not reproducible,' which is not exactly a lie. The work indeed was not reproducible — because it was fraudulent," he says.
"Researchers try to protect their labs and their reputations, and these retractions are written in such a way that you often don't know what really happened."
Some labs appear to be more prone to malpractice than others. As many as 43 percent of all retractions came from just 38 labs - out of thousands worldwide. "So while we're not looking at a systemic disease, so to speak, in the scientific community, our findings do indicate a significant problem that needs to be addressed," says Casadevall.