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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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November 6, 2012

How Much Fraud, As Opposed to Plain Old Error?

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Posted by Derek

How many retracted papers, would you say, are due to honest error rather than fraud and other misconduct? We now can put a number on that, thanks to this paper. The authors have looked over all 2,047 paper listed on PubMed from the life sciences as "retracted" (better them than me), with the earliest going back to 1977. The authors are careful to point out that this is absolutely an underestimate, though, with several examples of papers which are known to be fraudulent but have never been officially retracted. But they find that:

. . .only 21.3% of retractions were attributable to error. In contrast, 67.4% of retractions were attributable to misconduct, including fraud or suspected fraud (43.4%), duplicate publication (14.2%), and plagiarism (9.8%).

They blame incomplete and outright misleading retraction notices for confusing the issue about these numbers. (I've always liked, in a teeth-gritting way, the idea of a dubious retraction notice - it gives these things the full surround-sound sensory experience). Many published retractions that blame things like "flaws in the data analysis" turn out, on follow-up, to have been the subject of investigations that strongly suggested fraud.

Other trends: the US, Germany, Japan, and China accounted for the majority of papers pulled because of fraud, but China and India each stand out a bit in a crowded plagiarism field (China also stand out in the "duplicate publication" category). Higher-impact journals were significantly more likely to have papers retracted because of outright fraud rather than plagiarism (a result that makes sense, and squares with my own experience as a reader). And retractions have definitely been increasing over time, probably with several factors operating at once (greater incentives to fraud, coupled with increased detection). The paper sums up this way:

Given that most scientific work is publicly funded and that retractions because of misconduct undermine science and its impact on society, the surge of retractions suggests a need to reevaluate the incentives driving this phenomenon. We have previously argued that increased retractions and ethical breaches may result, at least in part, from the incentive system of science, which is based on a winner-takes-all economics that confers disproportionate rewards to winners in the form of grants, jobs, and prizes at a time of research funding scarcity.

Fixing this, though, will not be easy. There are recommendations for an increased focus on ethics training (which will do nothing at all, I think, to stop the sort of person who would do these sorts of things). But they also call for some standardization of retraction notices, with minimum standards of disclosure, which sounds like a good idea, and also for trying to find some way to reward scientists that doesn't involve publishing a ton of papers. I like that idea, too, although the implementation will be tricky. . .

Comments (10) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: The Dark Side | The Scientific Literature


1. DLIB on November 6, 2012 11:32 AM writes...

Simply remove the PI portion from grants being submitted in a phase of grant review (I propose) where the scientific questions and methods to answer those questions are being reviewed. The rationale for that section is the determination of whether the work proposed could be performed with a likelihood of success. I had a proposal that when reviewed received consistent 1's and 2's in the innovation / approach / scientific importance .... part of the review. I received 9's across the board by all reviewers in the PI section - I'm a nobody and I didn't tart myself up during my career. Those 9's, even though it is one score on the list, dragged my average too low for consideration due to the agreement among all reviewers. I find it ironic that it assumes I won't be able to perform the work I propose. No mechanism to address this. A dual phase grant review approach might redress this problem ( as I obviously see it ;-). If I did tart myself up it's likely those 9's go away and drastically shift my score. Incentive to tart away!!! ( which I wont't do :-)

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2. David Formerly Known as a Chemist on November 6, 2012 12:21 PM writes...

The peer review process for grants is controlled and manipulated by an established "in crowd", a "good old boy network" of researchers that ensure their friend's applications are well-reviewed and to hell with everyone else. Much like DLIB shared, I've seen this over and over while working in an academic institute. There were investigators that openly crowed about their network, talked to reviewers before review dates, and then provided the same courtesy to the same reviewers. Other investigators not in the crowd proposed very interesting science that was routinely panned. It's a gimmicky system, and the only way to succeed is to spend lots and lots of time working your way into the inner circles. Not so surprising, I guess, when humans are involved in allocating scarce resources.

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3. Janne on November 6, 2012 7:16 PM writes...

One thing that may skew this is that fraud is probably much more likely to trigger a full retraction than a mistake. I would expect that there is a range of errors that would cause a retraction if it is the result of deliberate deception, but just a correction (or a flurry of back and forth "letters to the editor") if the mistake was honest.

I'd look at papers with later published corrections as well, in other words, and count those with mistakes similar in type and scope to those that were ultimately retracted.

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4. submitted anonymously on November 6, 2012 10:43 PM writes...

@1: We have previously reported(1) that anonymous proposals are usually easily recognizable either by their subject matter or their bibliographic references. The same is usually true for papers, too.(2)

(1) newnickname, "Are Anonymous Grant Proposals and Scientific Manuscripts Really Anonymous?"

(2) ibid.

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5. petros on November 7, 2012 3:12 AM writes...

I recollect a series of papers from a highly reputable group on an animal model of disease that prompted great interest from the pharma industry. Most major companies attempted to replicate the model all with no success and it became widely accepted that the experimental data reported in several papers had been manipulated. However, the PI never retracted any of the papers.

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6. random chemist on November 7, 2012 7:54 AM writes...

off topic:

you have found your way into wikipedia:

(reference [1])

smells like success

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7. Iridium on November 7, 2012 9:47 AM writes...

In mane european countries you "cannot" get fired once you become a University┬┤s professor.

So you can try to cheat your way to the top and once they find out....too late!!!
You get blamed for miscondut and you loose a couple of grantes but you will be able to keep the job that someone else would have deserved.

Well done

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8. Derek Lowe on November 7, 2012 10:03 AM writes...

#6, Random: I've infested Wikipedia even more than you know:

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9. Janne on November 7, 2012 9:14 PM writes...

@iridium, in the countries I know about, tenure for "professor" is PI or department head level only, not the US term "professor" which includes lecturers and mid-career researchers.

Also, you can get fired for cause; fraud would certainly get you fired anywhere. I think the US tenure system is as secure an employment or perhaps even more so, and certainly covers a broader range of people.

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10. Anonymous on November 7, 2012 10:49 PM writes...

A subset of "honest mistakes" are also fraud. Smaller scope fraud in particular is difficult to prove, and the benefit of the doubt is given liberally. There are incentives for PIs to sweep small scale fraud under the carpet, to portray it as honest mistakes. And then to convince themselves that it was honest. At least that has been my experience in academia.

Generally the rewards are high (job, pay, grants, etc.) and the punishments relatively small (the very worst typical outcome seems to be have to find another job, maybe) for those who would venture into such grounds. People will always cheat to get ahead, but cheating increases when the risk:reward ratio is small and when the chance of getting caught is low.

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