The Wall Street Journal has an interesting article based on data from Thomson Reuters on the frequency of retracted papers. It seems to be increasing dramatically:
Since 2001, while the number of papers published in research journals has risen 44%, the number retracted has leapt more than 15-fold, data compiled for The Wall Street Journal by Thomson Reuters reveal.
Just 22 retraction notices appeared in 2001, but 139 in 2006 and 339 last year. Through seven months of this year, there have been 210, according to Thomson Reuters Web of Science, an index of 11,600 peer-reviewed journals world-wide.
They mention Retraction Watch, as well they should. But ten years ago, would there have been enough new material to keep that blog running? Pharmalot has some more from its founder about what might be going on. There are, of course, more journals than ever these days, and many of them are junk. But it's not the bottom-tier journals that are driving this trend, I'd think, since honestly, when does anyone ever retract a paper in one of them? Consistent with that view, this bar chart of PubMed retractions by journal is heavily weighted towards the big dogs. A lousy or nonreproducible paper in one of the top journals is more likely to be of enough interest to attract attention, but one in J. Whatever will just sit there.
No, when you look at this chart, it appears that retractions-per-papers-published have been climbing, so the answer must be some combination of more mistakes, more fraud, or better policing. Retractions due to fraud seem to be where most of the growth is, according to this study, so that takes us down to the latter two explanations.
Software has definitely made the lazier sorts of fraud easier to detect, automatically flagging copy-and-paste hack jobs. But those aren't the kinds of things that show up in the better journals, are they? We may be seeing a mix of greater incentive to commit fraud and a rise in skepticism among readers. There have been enough cases, enough highly-publicized retractions and scandals, that more people may be willing to wonder if some exciting new result is true at all.
That's not a bad thing. The rise in fraud is a bad thing, but a corresponding rise in scrutiny is the only thing that's going to cure it. There are always a few pathological types out there that kind of know that they're going to get caught and kind of don't care. Those we shall always have with us, and not much is going to discourage them. But as for the rest of the fraudsters, the thought that they have a better chance of being found out and punished should give them something to think about.