Last year, Nature, a leading scientific journal, calculated that published retractions had increased tenfold over the past decade — to more than 300 a year — even though the number of papers published rose only 44 percent. It attributed half of the retractions to embarrassing mistakes and half to “scientific misconduct” such as plagiarism, faked data and altered images.
Now a new study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, has concluded that the degree of misconduct was even worse than previously thought. The authors analyzed more than 2,000 retracted papers in the biomedical and life sciences and found that misconduct was the reason for three-quarters of the retractions for which they could determine the cause.
There are many theories for why retractions and fraud have increased. A benign view suggests that because journals are now published online and more accessible to a wider audience, it’s easier for experts to spot erroneous or fraudulent papers. A darker view suggests that publish-or-perish pressures in the race to be first with a finding and to place it in a prestigious journal has driven scientists to make sloppy mistakes or even falsify data.