Why is there so much fraud?

The recent shutdown of the Science Fraud website under legal threats (now there is nothing left except the rather superfluous About) has brought publication of fraudulent scientific data back to the front of my mind. Some observers fell quickly into judging what lawyers would make of it.  Although the lawyers are possibly of great financial import to the protagonists, the only certain thing is that the lawyers have been brought in only to pick at holes, because the scientific case is over. Most of the apologists have clearly never done a Western blot, and don’t understand them.

It is sad to say that the sensational nature of the material on the science fraud site catalyzed to some thoroughly unpleasant reactions from bystanders. It’s apparently megalomaniacal and precious for whistleblowers to obscure their identity, because of worries over safety. I’d say you can’t be too careful, given the well-documented pathological behaviour of science frauds. The people being exposed have worked themselves up into a highly strung mania through years of accumulated and documented deceit. A fraudulent paper is on display for anyone with a journal subscription to read at any time of the day or night. You can’t pretend it didn’t happen, it’s not a dirty little secret, you published it. This degree of exposure must be what drives the frauds bananas.

In that case, why on earth do people risk it? And why is it apparently endemic? I guess that it’s a calculated decision based on the following.

1) The pressure to publish in “Top Journals” means it’s worth massaging the data (or just making it up). That this obsession with counting (and with Impact Factors) will lead to fraud has been well enough discussed elsewhere (see letter, 3rd July).

2) There is too much bloody literature, and most people only read the abstracts. Everyone from hiring committees down to Phd students rarely find time or desire to read papers (but many know impact factors off by heart). So the publicity of any paper is relatively minor (yet the fear of exposure must gnaw away at the very essence).

3) Some authors don’t know what’s in their own papers, leaving the door open for coauthors to assemble and submit collages of holiday photos, leaves and old newspaper under the guise of a Western Blot. David Colquhoun tells of how he would weed out weak candidates at interview simply by asking them about papers on which they were co-authors. Often this direction was way off the path for the interviewee…who knew little of the content of the work. Of course, this meant that he had to read the papers…

4) You can get away with looking productive by publishing a thinly sliced of selection of inconsequential papers in minor journals (see How to Get Good Science). These journals are all shielded by a paywall that only the Library of Congress has paid, like the Journal of Canadian Rabbit Psychopharmacology, or Acta Euclidea Scandinavica H. Thus, even if anyone wants to read your work, whether they are suspicious or not, you are relatively safe. Nobody wants to pay to read such inconsequential rubbish. The glut of overspecialised, minor journals has been termed “narrowcasting” – but I think that’s nonsense.

The system that generated this behaviour was built by scientists themselves, those who chose to value volume over quality. Because the scientists are both the consumers and the producers, most scientists want to the fix the system, but can’t afford not to follow it. The status quo is easier because it’s much easier to understand than actually reading and assessing the quality of the work. What do I mean by quality? I mean, is it derivative, or courageous. Is it careful, or are obvious controls missing (or omitted). This system wasn’t built by the journals Cell, Nature and Science,  although they undoubtedly exploit it, and possibly contribute to the commoditization of novelty over careful experimentation. The current state of affairs is wasteful, and the fraud that seems to have come along for the ride is really quite upsetting for the rest of us, who take some pride in what we publish.

Treating the literature as a superficial commodity to be traded has got to stop. Take a stand – read a paper every day, do thoughtful, careful experiments and take the time to publish them properly, when they are as good as they can be. Otherwise we will drown in this junk.

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