Chemistry World has a good article on the problem of shaky data in journal article, and the intersecting problem of what to do about it in the chemistry blogging world. Paul Bracher's ChemBark is, naturally, a big focus of the piece, since he's been highlighting some particularly egregious examples in the last couple of months (which I've linked to from here).
The phrase "witch hunt" has been thrown around by some observers, but I don't think that's fair or appropriate. In great contrast to the number of witches around (and their effectiveness), faked information in published scientific articles is very much a real thing, and can have real consequences. Time spent looking for it and exposing it is not time wasted, not when it's at its current levels. But who should be doing the looking and the exposing?
The standard answer is "Why, journal editors and reviewers, who shouldn't be letting this stuff past in the first place". Quite true. But in many cases, they are letting it past, so what should be done once it's published? A quiet, gentlemanly note to the editorial staff? Or a big blazing row in a public forum, such as a widely-read blog? Even though I don't start many of these myself, I come down more on the side of the latter. There are problems with that stance, of course - you have to be pretty sure that there's something wrong before you go making a big deal out of it, for one thing. Hurting someone else's reputation for no reason would be a bad thing, as would damaging your own credibility by making baseless accusations.
But in some of these recent cases, there's been little doubt about the problem. Take that nanorod paper: the most common result when I showed to to people was "Oh, come on." (And the most common result when I showed the famous "Just make up an elemental" paper to people was "Oh, (expletive)", with several common words all filling in appropriately). So if there's clearly trouble with a published paper, why is it such a good thing to make a big public spectacle out of it?
Deterrence. I really think that there will be less of this if people think that there's a reasonable chance that fake science will be exposed widely and embarrassingly. Covering up half your NMR spectrum with a box of digital white-out is fraud and people committing fraud have given up their opportunity to be treated with respect. And don't forget, the whole deterrence argument applies to editors and reviewers, too. I can guarantee that many chemists looked at these recent examples and wondered if they would have let these papers go through the review process, through carelessness or lack of time, and resolved to do better the next time. I certainly did.
That said, I do not intend to make this blog the full-time scourge of the chemical literature by patrolling the literature myself. If I see something suspicious, I'll speak up about it, and if other chemistry blogs (or readers) pick up on something, I'm very glad to hear about it or link to it. But finding these examples is a perfect example of something that I think is best left to the crowd. The person best equipped to discover a fraudulent paper is the person who is interested in its subject and would like to build on its results - in other words, the person who would be most harmed by it. And if someone fakes a paper, but no one ever reads it or refers to it, well, that's the author's own reward, and I hope that they enjoy it.