Every day, thousands of scientific papers are published worldwide, written by dedicated researchers eager to advance knowledge. But a shocking number are not credible — more than half, by many estimates. They’re biased, undercut by flawed methods, littered with exaggerations, or in the worst cases, completely fraudulent. The problem is, it’s not easy to figure out which is which.
That’s where we come in. We’re The Watchdogs. Our column will steer STAT readers through this scientific thicket.
We first began writing about scientific integrity in the summer of 2010, when, on what was little more than a lark, we launched a blog called Retraction Watch. We hoped to tell the backstories of science through the lens of what happens when things go wrong.
New discoveries and tantalizing findings get most of the attention from the popular media. In our view as journalists, however, articles retracted because of serious errors had plenty to say about some of the less visible aspects of science: How and why research could go wrong, how researchers and journals reacted to the knowledge that something in print was no longer reliable, and how much money was being wasted on fraudulent research.
Take the case of Dr. Scott Reuben. In 2009, Reuben, an anesthesiologist at Tufts University School of Medicine and Baystate Medical Center, in Springfield, Mass., admitted to having fabricated data over years of clinical trial work. Reuben eventually wound up serving six months in federal prison for health care fraud, and was ordered to pay back more than $400,000 to the government and drug companies in fines and restitution.
He also lost more than 20 papers to retraction — but nearly half of them continue to be cited even now by scientists in new research articles. Astonishingly, only a quarter of these citations mention the retractions. That’s a little like writing a profile of Bernie Madoff that praises his returns in the stock markets but fails to mention … that other thing.
What we didn’t know back in 2010 was that we were in the midst of an extraordinary surge in retractions in science — a 10-fold increase over the previous decade, while the number of new papers rose by only about 40 percent during that time. That surge caught the eye of a group of researchers who wondered about the reason for the rise. Their work (which, for full disclosure, relied in part on our reporting) showed that, contrary to the conventional wisdom, two-thirds of retractions involved some form of misconduct — from plagiarism to outright fraud.
That’s a little like writing a profile of Bernie Madoff that praises his returns in the stock markets but fails to mention … that other thing.
Even as we went from writing a few posts a week to putting out two to three a day, we realized we couldn’t keep up with all of the retractions we came across. Thanks to the generous support of two foundations, we have hired a small staff of like-minded journalists who cover retractions, corrections, expressions of concern, and other signals from journals of problems with papers. All of their work feeds into a database we’re building to keep track of retractions, something that hasn’t existed and which will be a boon to scientists who need to be sure that their own work doesn’t rely on studies that are no longer valid.
What five years of covering retractions has uncovered for us is how many issues threaten the integrity of science. In this column, we aim to explore all these challenges. These include flaws in the peer-review process – such as authors secretly reviewing their own work to approve it for publication, a no-no in science. The inability to reproduce many findings is another threat, along with the scourge of predatory publishing, a phenomenon involving companies that claim to operate peer-reviewed journals but really just separate gullible researchers from their money. We’ll scrutinize perverse incentives in academia, a.k.a. “publish or perish,” and the lack of transparency in research, whether it’s failure to disclose conflicts of interest or methods. We’ll also look at the general indifference of law enforcement to the crime of research fraud.
Each week, we’ll dive into trends in scientific integrity, whether it’s how to think about correcting the scientific record — spoiler alert: The cofounders of Retraction Watch think that retractions aren’t always the best way to do that — how to figure out which studies will hold up, or how competition and collaboration affect the scientific enterprise. We’ll look at whether claims scientists make in the press stand the test of time. And we’ll tell the real-life stories of researchers who’ve gone to the dark side to commit fraud, and of the crusaders, from editors to whistleblowers, who are helping to stop them.
In a word: Accountability. Welcome to The Watchdogs.