Increase in retractions of scientific articles tied to problems in scientific process

Several scientists are calling for changes in how scientific work is conducted and published because of a rise in retracted articles:

Dr. Fang became curious how far the rot extended. To find out, he teamed up with a fellow editor at the journal, Dr. Arturo Casadevall of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. And before long they reached a troubling conclusion: not only that retractions were rising at an alarming rate, but that retractions were just a manifestation of a much more profound problem — “a symptom of a dysfunctional scientific climate,” as Dr. Fang put it.

Dr. Casadevall, now editor in chief of the journal mBio, said he feared that science had turned into a winner-take-all game with perverse incentives that lead scientists to cut corners and, in some cases, commit acts of misconduct…

Last month, in a pair of editorials in Infection and Immunity, the two editors issued a plea for fundamental reforms. They also presented their concerns at the March 27 meeting of the National Academies of Sciences committee on science, technology and the law.

Here is what Fang and Casadevall suggest may help reduce these issues:

To change the system, Dr. Fang and Dr. Casadevall say, start by giving graduate students a better understanding of science’s ground rules — what Dr. Casadevall calls “the science of how you know what you know.”

They would also move away from the winner-take-all system, in which grants are concentrated among a small fraction of scientists. One way to do that may be to put a cap on the grants any one lab can receive.

In other words, give graduate students more training in ethics and the sociology of science while also redistributing scientific research money so that more researchers can be involved. There is a lot to consider here. Of course, there might always be researchers tempted to commit fraud yet these scientists are arguing that the current system and circumstances needs to be tweaked to fight this. Graduate students and young faculty are well aware of what they have to do: publish research in the highest-ranked journals they can. Jobs and livelihoods are on the line. With that pressure, it makes sense that some may resort to unethical measures to get published.

Three other thoughts:

1. How often is social science research retracted? If it is infrequent, should it happen more often?

2. Even if an article or study is retracted, this doesn’t solve the whole issue as that work may have been cited a lot and become well known. Perhaps the bigger problem is “erasing” this study from the collective science memory. This reminds me of newspaper corrections; when you go find the original printing, you don’t know there was a later correction. The same thing can happen here: scientific studies can have long lives.

3. Should disciplines or journals have groups that routinely assess the validity of research studies? This would go beyond peer review and give a group the authority to ask questions about suspicious papers. Alas, this still wouldn’t catch even most of the problematic papers…