From time to time, examples of fraud and misconduct in science surface. But the frequency seems to be increasing. Last year’s XMRV duplicate-blot fraud (uncovered by the great Abbie Smith) by Judy Mikovits caught a lot of attention. But my jaw literally dropped when I read Science Fraud, a blog which exposes image fraud in cell biology and biochemistry. Add a band here, move a band there, duplicate your controls across panels. The sheer volume of posts (about 1 per day) suggests that a movement to expose endemic fraud is gathering steam. Fraud isn’t just happening in China [hat tip: DC], it’s worldwide. It’s in journals you never heard of, and it’s in Cell too. Image manipulation of this kind has been under scrutiny for some years but the volume and style of the manipulations highlighted suggests that it is absolutely rife. Disturbingly, the prion hypothesis looks to have benefitted from manipulations at the highest level. Brave and necessary work by the anonymous author, who deserves great respect.

When fraud is confirmed, a retraction should follow. That there are now enough retractions to drive entire blogs, like the superb Retraction Watch, is indicative. A study on the reasons for the increased rate of retractions is one of the most read papers on the PNAS website at the moment. It must be said that only a small fraction of papers are ever retracted. It must also be said that there are quite a few papers that should be retracted, not because of fraud, but because many people (i.e. everyone) know that they are wrong. But they never will be.

Keeping the literature straight is the only hope we have for making progress in science. If computational data mining approaches are ever to take off, it’s essential. Ideally, the sum of published knowledge could be assessed and synthesised into something new. There is no obvious way that a computer can detect false information. The recent move towards publishing rich data is a good idea. EMBO Journal is encouraging it, and judging by a recent survey, Science is considering it – Bruce Alberts is the right person to drive such a idea through.  But it’s not taken off yet.  A common argument is that scientists are under pressure and the system encourages fraud (see letter, section entitled 3rd July). To me, people with no principles are undermining our entire enterprise. As long as researchers (I can’t bear to bring myself to call them scientists) continue to pump garbage into the system, all our good intentions will be brought to nought.


8 thoughts on “Fraud

    • Thanks for your comment. I don’t know why you put “wrong” in quotes. I’m thinking of papers that are wrong, without the quotes. You know, like a paper where a wrong clone was used. Perhaps these papers could be marked as wrong, rather than retracted, so a computer could ignore them. Still, there’s little reason to fret. This won’t happen.

  1. This is sad, at the least. In some systems like the Spanish one, it is more important to publish in a high impact factor journal, no-matter-what. You can be a solid scientist that is contributing to understand a specific question about the world sorrounding us (scientist? What is a scientist?) but it is not Science (capital letter) if it is not published in a high IF magazine. So you won’t get grants and that’s all, folks. The problem is that there is a set of people that do not care. The band is THERE. Yeah, there are many other bands, but we have photoshop! The green signal is THERE. Yeah, we are not sure that there is bleedthrough in the excitation light, but we don’t need to be so descriptive in the methods section. They are NOT scientists. They are vulgar swindlers. They don’t seek any understanding, don’t care about the question, nonetheless about what the answer is. And they win! they publish well, they choose a fancy topic…et voilà! I don’t know what is the solution to this problem, but I think some people need to be reminded of what is the meaning of science (no capital letters needed).

    • You are right Teresa,HIGH IF is the only thing that matter. Infra ce also
      Ron vale recently states that grants referees used to read the paper in grant for grants evaluation, the science matter not the IF

      • Well, I was too categorical here, and I must clarify a couple of things. First, I think that there is a correlation, of course, between high impact factors and good quality work. Many references prove that, and I don’t deny that we should aim to publish our work well, I very much respect and admire many good groups that systematically publish outstanding work in high IF journals. Nevertheless, there is nothing wrong about the specialized-audience, extended-article journals, and my fear is that we are slowly forgetting their importance and meaning. The second thing I should clarify is that I did not mean that the grant reviewers don’t care about science or do not read papers. There are many countries and systems, so I don’t mean to generalize, that would be so inadequate. I know there are still good reviewers, good scientists that do properly and rigorously analysis of projects. My fear is that with systems like ours, where a reviewer is faced to review 150 grants in a week, with “translationality” and “patentability” as specific aims, he/she is definitely biased to start with; if you add to the equation a significantly low budget, and on top of that the “numerology” of IF and other “numerologies” (we have more), the cocktail may be explosive. There may be no time, no room for science in that highly pressurized chamber. After exploding, the reviewer (who can be a fantastic scientist in her/his field!) is so relieved that just thinks it is good to be alive. (“Hopefully next year they will call someone else to the pannel”, they may think)….I fear that this is the direction that the system I know is facing. And I think Andrew is right, this pressured chamber eventualy promotes fraud, which is so sad and shameful, and we should not let this happen in science. That is totally WRONG, by all means.

  2. Pingback: Science Fraud shut down | Serious Piffle

  3. Pingback: Why is there so much fraud? | Serious Piffle

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