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.