March 15, 2011

Ethics in Oncology: Lies, Big and Small, Matter - Relatively few scientific papers retracted

Ronald Piana
A recent study in the Journal of Medical Ethics found that 788 research papers published in medical journals between 2000 and 2010 were retracted for serious errors or falsified data.1,2 Study author Grant Steen, PhD, told The ASCO Post that U.S. scientists were responsible for 169 of the papers retracted for inadvertent yet serious errors, as well as 84 papers retracted for blatant fraud. "In any case, during the sample period I used for the study, nearly 5 million papers were published, so the short version of what I found is that relatively few scientific papers are retracted," said Dr. Steen.
Yet, Dr. Steen noted an interesting, if not alarming pattern. "Among the papers retracted for error, only about 18% of authors had a previous retraction. However, among papers retracted for out-and-out fraud, more than half of those authors had previous retractions," said Dr. Steen.
According to Dr. Steen, this finding can be interpreted in two ways. Authors of a fraudulent paper are likely to have all their papers retracted, whether or not fraud or error was committed in each publication. "But the other explanation, which I tend to favor, is that people who engage in fraud have a pattern of abusing the literature," said Dr. Steen.
While it is impossible to look into the mind or motive of another, there are some things we can discern from patterns that emerge in studies such as Dr. Steen's. Since falsified papers were more likely to appear in high-profile medical journals as opposed to less prestigious publications, we can intuit that the "publish or perish" ethos might be a factor behind this behavior. "We need to be cautious; some clinical researchers perceive a paper published in a journal with a high impact factor as an open door to an upward career move, and they are willing to falsify data to walk through that door," said Dr. Steen >>>

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