The New York Times reports this week on the rising rates of papers appearing in peer-refereed journals that are being withdrawn. You withdraw a paper for two reasons generally. You either made a mistake in your scientific reasoning or someone caught you lying. It appears that it’s the latter reason and not the former that is on the rise.
Why is this happening? According to one expert:
“Several factors are at play here, scientists say. One may be that because journals are now online, bad papers are simply reaching a wider audience, making it more likely that errors will be spotted. “You can sit at your laptop and pull a lot of different papers together,” Dr. Fang said.
But other forces are more pernicious. To survive professionally, scientists feel the need to publish as many papers as possible, and to get them into high-profile journals. And sometimes they cut corners or even commit misconduct to get there.
To measure this claim, Dr. Fang and Dr. Casadevall looked at the rate of retractions in 17 journals from 2001 to 2010 and compared it with the journals’ “impact factor,” a score based on how often their papers are cited by scientists. The higher a journal’s impact factor, the two editors found, the higher its retraction rate.”
In a way, this is the consequence of the “publish or perish” mentality that is the common experience of working scientists in the US. If you are lucky enough to land a university teaching position, the only real way to gain tenure is to publish frequently enough that you’re likely to attract major government funding for your research. The university takes a cut of the grant money. If you’re a cash cow, you’re in. If you’re not, look for other work.
That is not serving either the university, the scientific community or the general public well at all.
The old way of doing scientific research which generally involved finding a well-heeled patron doesn’t seem likely to work today either. People don’t get social points for contributing to the common good. The wealthy patron is going to get more recognition for conspicuous consumption than good works these days. Which is sad, but it’s a statement of where we are as a society I suppose.
Maybe we need to go to crowd-sourcing to fund basic research today (like a kick-starter).
But either way, no matter what the cause, and until there’s a solution, we probably all need to treat unusual scientific claims with more than a little suspicion. There’s often more than meets the eye in the story behind a paper making such a claim.
Do people ever withdraw theological papers?