Bad science on the rise


The New York Times reports this week on the rising rates of papers appearing in peer-refereed journals that are being withdrawn.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.”

More here.

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?

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...


  1. > Do people ever withdraw theological papers?

    Why would they ever do so? Theological claims can’t even be tested, let alone verified or falsified. (Russell’s Teapot, anyone?)

  2. I think the correlation with “high impact” factor is the telling one. Grant reviews, paper reviews, tenure reviews, salary reviews all are disproportionately influenced by the impact factor. In an era of drastically shrinking funding, people become desperate to keep their careers alive. Once you lose a grant, it is very hard to get it back–and the ultimate penalty of losing one’s lab is losing one’s vocation and one’s purpose, for most scientists. For those who have 25%, 50%, or even 100% of their salary on grants, it’s losing even more than that, as well as throwing out the technical staff and students you used to support. It ;s not just me and my family, but a whole bunch of other people who depend on my keeping funded to keep food on their tables too. NO wonder I lie sleepless around renewal time.

    These can be very compelling reasons for some people to cut corners.

    Now, science is supposed to be self-correcting and it is. I tell my students it’s okay to be wrong as long as they are wrong honestly–that is, they faithfully and honestly report what they did, all of it, and draw conclusions soundly based on their data. Those mistakes which we all make, will be corrected in the course of normal research.

    Of course, active errors, fraud, and malfeasance are never justifiable– and those are the retractions reported. Still, as the article points out, we must acknowledge how our modern scientific culture has contributed: the vicious tournament model of modern science, the “winner takes all” rule, the pyramid scheme of career structure, and the unreasonable demands to publish in the “glossy journals”, in an era where resources have dwindled so poorly. It’s a Malthusian world now, and it’s hard to recommend to students that they go into research.

    But is this any different than the polarized competitive viciousness of our modern culture in business and politics?

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