The progress of scientific inquiry depends on researchers to faithfully report their observations from important and well-designed experiments. Falsifying data or intentionally misrepresenting results can be quite damaging to research as it has the potential to lead entire fields astray as scientists try to build on these exciting, yet false, results.
Thus, the results of a recently published provocative study are especially troubling. This study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, analyzed the reasons underlying the retraction of scientific papers. The authors reported that more than two-thirds of papers that were retracted were done so due to scientific misconduct, including plagiarism, fraud and suspected fraud. While the number of retracted papers remains low – fewer than 0.1 percent of all PubMed entries have been retracted – the authors of this study indicated that journals with higher impact factors, such as Science and Nature, often have higher retraction indices than other journals.
Scientific misconduct can have far-reaching implications, even beyond PubMed and the realm of scientific inquiry. On Sep. 28, Annie Dookhan, a chemist at a Massachusetts state crime lab, was arrested on charges that she tampered with more than 60,000 pieces of evidence involving nearly 34,000 defendants, forged colleagues’ signatures and lied about her credentials while under oath. The lab where Dookhan worked has shutdown pending an investigation, and at least one person has already resigned in the wake of this growing scandal. In addition, Massachusetts prosecutors will have to review the cases of more than 1,100 inmates in which Dookhan served as the primary or secondary chemist. Officials are already concerned about the effects the mass release of inmates might have on communities.
Society, as the Dookhan case shows, as well as honest scientists often pay a steep price for those who engage in misconduct, but what can be done to prevent further acts of deception? The National Institutes of Health have well-established guidelines that define scientific misconduct and the repercussions of engaging in such actions. Furthermore, all misconduct allegations are logged and investigated by the Office of Research Integrity. But does any of this prevent misconduct, and how is scientific misconduct policed in arenas outside of NIH jurisdiction, such as state crime labs? Unfortunately, the answers to these questions are often complex and not enlightening.
Scientific misconduct cases should cause significant introspection within the scientific community to try to develop methods to identify fraudulent work before it is widely circulated. Studies about why papers are retracted and court cases about how and why scientists engage in misconduct will shed light on the motives behind such actions. Stay tuned to the ASBMB Policy Blotter for more updates on scientific misconduct and other issues at the intersection of science and public policy.