An article about a recent controversial paper published in Nature includes a summary of how many scientific papers were redacted or the result of fraud since 1975:
In the meantime, the paper has been cited 11 times by other published papers building on the findings.
It may be impossible for anyone from outside to know the extent of the problems in the Nature paper. But the incident comes amid a phenomenon that some call a “retraction epidemic.”
Last year, research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that the percentage of scientific articles retracted because of fraud had increased tenfold since 1975.
The same analysis reviewed more than 2,000 retracted biomedical papers and found that 67 percent of the retractions were attributable to misconduct, mainly fraud or suspected fraud.
“You have a lot of people who want to do the right thing, but they get in a position where their job is on the line or their funding will get cut, and they need to get a paper published,” said Ferric C. Fang, one of the authors of the analysis and a medical professor at the University of Washington. “Then they have this tempting thought: If only the data points would line up .?.?.?”
Fang said retractions may be rising because it is simply easier to cheat in an era of digital images, which can be easily manipulated. But he said the increase is caused at least in part by the growing competition for publication and for NIH grant money.
There are two consequences of this commonly discussed in the media. One is the price for taxpayers who fund some of the big money scientific and medical research through federal grants. Second is the credibility of science itself.
But, I think there is a third issue that is perhaps even more important. What does this say about what we actually know about the world? In other worlds, how many subsequent papers are built on the fraudulent or redacted work? Science often works in a chain or pyramid; later work builds on earlier findings, particularly ones published in more prestigious journals. So when a paper is questioned, like the piece in Nature, it isn’t just about the nature of that one paper. It is also about the 11 papers that have already cited it.
So what does this mean for what we actually know? How much does a redacted piece set back science? Or, do researchers hardly even notice? I suspect many of these redacted papers don’t slow down things too much but there is always the potential that a redacted paper could pull the rug out of important findings.