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. . .