Why are research retractions increasing?

Bouree Lam at The Atlantic asks whether the number of retractions of research papers is increasing because of more mistakes and misdeeds, or because science is being more closely scrutinised than ever before.

She concludes it’s both, and quotes Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus, the co-founders of the blog Retraction Watch. “Retractions are born of many mothers,” they say.

Their blog has logged thousands of retractions over the past five years.

A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reviewed 2,047 retractions of biomedical and life-sciences articles and found that just 21.3 percent stemmed from straightforward error, while 67.4 percent resulted from misconduct, including fraud or suspected fraud (43.4 percent) and plagiarism (9.8 percent)

Many scientists blame increased competition for academic jobs and research funding, combined with a “publish or perish” culture, says Lam.

Because journals are more likely to accept studies reporting “positive” results (those that support, rather than refute, a hypothesis), researchers may have an incentive to “cook” or “mine” their data to generate a positive finding.

But it could be just that people are looking more than they did. And if that’s the case, the solution might also lie with greater scrutiny.

This heightened scrutiny—the very scrutiny that likely contributed to the retractions surge in the first place—could help reverse the tide, by providing a powerful disincentive to bad behavior. As more scientific misconduct is exposed and shamed, researchers who were previously tempted to play fast and loose with their data may now think twice.

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