Peer Reviewed Research: The Fraud Explosion
Ethicists are becoming alarmed at the explosive increase in scientific fraud cases – and those are just the ones that were caught.
Fraud on the Rise
It’s a truism that scientific research requires honesty (as with any intellectual endeavor). For some reason, fraud cases have increased dramatically. Is it due to better detection and reporting, or to a disturbing trend that no longer values honesty in academia? Some recent articles weigh in on the problem.
In Nature News Oct 1, an article headlined, “Misconduct is the main cause of life-sciences retractions.” That’s misconduct in contrast to slipshod error, as Zoe Corbyn expressed:
Conventional wisdom says that most retractions of papers in scientific journals are triggered by unintentional errors. Not so, according to one of the largest-ever studies of retractions. A survey published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has found that two-thirds of retracted life-sciences papers were stricken from the scientific record because of misconduct such as fraud or suspected fraud — and that journals sometimes soft-pedal the reason.
Results of the survey were published in PNAS (Fang, Steen and Casadevall, “Misconduct accounts for the majority of retracted scientific publications,” PNAS October 1, 2012, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1212247109). Of the 2,047 retracted papers surveyed, 43% were fraud cases and 24% were due to either duplicate publication or plagiarism. And this was from leading journals, including Nature, Science, and PNAS itself. Only a fifth, Science Insider said, were due to mistakes. Science Magazine (Random Sample, Oct 5) noted that while plagiarism predominated in China, fraud predominated in the United States. New Scientist said these numbers were “higher than thought.” The Scientist speculated about the reasons:
The disproportionate number of fraud-related retractions from high-IF journals likely reflects the pressures on scientists to publish impressive data in prestigious journals. “There’s greater reward,” said Resnik, “and more temptation to bend the rules.”
But lots of people work under stress without bending the rules, and temptations hit everyone. Scientists are supposed to be models of integrity, aren’t they? Whatever the reason, research misconduct is not a victimless crime. One of the ethicists conducting the survey wanted to “dispel any notion that scientific misconduct may be a crime that only affects the perpetrators.” Scientists often publish on issues society really cares about.
Although retractions are on the rise, they remain relatively rare in science. Well under 0.1% of papers in PubMed have been retracted, the study found; the database contains more than 25 million papers going back to the 1940s.
The problem with that analysis is that nobody knows how many papers should have been retracted but were never exposed for fraud, error, or misconduct. That’s not just an idle concern. “What’s troubling is that the more skillful the fraud, the less likely that it will be discovered, so there likely are more fraudulent papers out there that haven’t yet been detected and retracted,” said Dr. Arturo Casadevall, lead author of the paper (quoted in Science Daily). And then there’s the question, why are retractions on the rise? Why now?
Science Daily listed Casadevall’s suggestions for improvement: such as, more emphasis on quality over quantity, less rating for impact, more cooperation and collaboration, and better funding processes. These would undoubtedly help, but one can imagine whole groups conspiring to commit fraud if honesty is not valued.
The Scientist uncovered another trend in fraud: self-congratulation. Some scientists are logging in under another name and writing great reviews of their own work.
At least four scientists have been cheating the peer review system in a whole new way: when submitting a paper to a scientific journal, they suggest reviewers with email addresses that track back to themselves; then they write a glowing review…. “I find it very shocking,” Laura Schmidt, an Elsevier publisher, told The Chronicle. “It’s very serious, very manipulative, and very deliberate.” ….
This “has taken a lot of people by surprise,” Irene Hames, a member of the Committee on Publication Ethics that advises journals on how to handle misconduct, said in an e-mail to The Chronicle. “It should be a wake-up call to any journals that don’t have rigorous reviewer selection and screening in place.”
Psychologist, Shrink Thyself
As reported earlier, some high-profile cases of fraud have come from the psychologist community. Now, according to Nature News, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman is calling on them to clean up their act. He wants them “to restore the credibility of their field by creating a replication ring to check each others’ results.” He told them in an email, “your field is now the poster child for doubts about the integrity of psychological research. I believe that you should collectively do something about this mess.”
Diederich Stapel, one of the poster children for psychology fraud, is now under investigation by Dutch prosecutors, according to Science Now. 25 of his papers have been retracted and others are being considered for retraction. He had received 2.2 million euros in research funding. Other high-profile cases include Dirk Smeesters (7/05/2012), Lawrence Sanna, and Marc Hauser (9/05/2012)
Kahneman proposed a “daisy chain of replication” to avoid unverified results. Norbert Schwarz, a social psychologist from U of Michigan, agrees something must be done. “I hope that this becomes part of a broader movement in psychology to be more self-critical, and to see if there are gaps in the way we do everyday science.”
Sleeping at the Syringe
Another shocking fraud case was by an anesthesiologist, Yoshitaka Fujii in Tokyo. David Cyranoski wrote in Nature News, “Retraction record rocks community: Anaesthesiology tries to move on after fraud investigations.” This is not one person’s problem, Cyranoski showed:
One of the biggest purges of the scientific literature in history is finally getting under way. After more than a decade of suspicion about the work of anaesthesiologist Yoshitaka Fujii, formerly of Toho University in Tokyo, investigations by journals and universities have concluded that he fabricated data on an epic scale. At least half of the roughly 200 papers he authored on responses to drugs after surgery are in line for retraction in the coming months.
Like many cases of fraud, this one has raised questions about how the misconduct went undetected for so long. But the scope and duration of Fujii’s deception have shaken multiple journals and the entire field of anaesthesiology, which has seen other high-profile frauds in the past few years.
Unquestionably, this could be serious. Fraudulent claims about drugs could conceivably reach right into the hospital where your loved one is trusting the doctor’s advice on medication. Suspicions arose about Fujii when he published more papers than seemed possible in the amount of time, and they looked “too perfect.” By spreading his publications out in multiple journals, he avoided some of the suspicion. Another trick, since he worked for five institutions, was to claim that ethics approval for studies had been granted at a previous post.
While Fujii’s is an exceptional case, colleagues are worried about their field. One who suspected the fraud doesn’t want to write off Fujii as merely a bad apple. “It’s a system failure,” he said. Indeed, if peer review and replication are not working, the vaunted “self-correcting” quality of scientific research is compromised.
Perhaps no other field of scholarly activity generates as much writing as science – publications that are supposed to be peer reviewed, inspected, and replicated. Thousands of titles are printed and posted every week by labs all over the world. For the self-checking processes of science to work, fellow scientists would have to spend vast amounts of their time replicating other scientists’ results. How could they? Even if they could, they might be motivated by rivalry or the desire for approval from superiors. Some research is clearly too difficult to replicate: how many countries can build a Large hadron Collider to look for the Higgs boson? Much work is not reproducible without great effort or luck, like snapping a photo of an Ivory woodpecker.
Peer review and replication remain idealistic in principle but too often unattainable in practice. Consequently, vast numbers of scientific papers slide through the process without adequate review, attaining the illusion of validity in the public’s eye. When fraud is caught, it’s often long after the damage has been done. The Scientist gave the example of the measles epidemic that resulted when parents feared, based on a fraudulent study, that inoculations caused autism.
While it may be encouraging to see rising concern over scientific fraud and misconduct, who’s watching the watchers? Somebody, somewhere, has to abide by some pretty old-fashioned values: courage and integrity.
Integrity: evolve that, Darwin. Rule: if it evolves, it’s not integrity.
In the article on Marc Hauser (9/05/2012), we made the point that evolutionary materialists really have nothing to complain about. Cheating is part of evolutionary game theory. Cheaters are necessary to produce the evolution of morality; Hauser himself taught that in his own book, and his colleagues all agree. How can they fault him for living consistent with his own views? He was performing a necessary role. For those who take this view of morality, all the cheaters mentioned in this article should get rewards.
Critics might respond that misconduct is rife in churches, too. It’s true. From time to time, high-profile pastors get exposed for sexual misconduct. Some preachers plagiarize others’ work by downloading sermons and preaching them as if their own. Yes, there are sinners in the church!
The difference is that the Biblical worldview accounts for sin; evolution does not. Bible believers know that God is holy, but humans are fallen. While the Bible teaches that we are each responsible for our sin, and have no excuse, we all sin. The history of sinners, even among great men like King David, is long; even the most righteous among us knows temptation and stumbling. But the Bible is also a story of redemption. Christ came into the world to save sinners (Romans 5:6-11). Accepting his gift of righteousness, purchased by his death on the cross, provides imputed (legal) righteousness before God, but practical righteousness only over time. The Christian life is a long process of sanctification that will not be completed in this lifetime. Christ founded the church (Matthew 16:13-19) as a community of disciples who would encourage and admonish each other toward righteousness (Colossians 3), with godly leaders teaching and applying His inspired Word (I Peter 5), which is profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness (I Timothy 3:16).
The point is that the Biblical worldview accounts for sin and has means for dealing with it. The more a church maintains high standards, is aware of sources of temptation, has policies for transparency and accountability, the less likely major cases of misconduct will appear. Nevertheless, because of our fallenness and ever-present temptation, some will stumble and fall into sin. When it happens, there are Biblical policies for dealing with it (e.g., Matthew 18), and redemptive policies for rehabilitating the sinner (II Corinthians 2:3-7).
The secular scientific community, by contrast, pretends shock and dismay over the misconduct of their members, but cannot account for why the misconduct is wrong. There is no “should” in evolutionary theory. They can’t say stuff should happen, and other stuff should not happen; they can only say stuff happens.
The only way secularists can set up ethics boards, policies and procedures, and investigate and punish misconduct is to borrow from Judeo-Christian moral principles. They have to steal from the smorgasbord of Christian values. This means they have to commit misconduct (plagiarism and theft) to fight misconduct! Reaching into their own beliefs, they have no grounds for calling anything of the above incidents wrong. It’s all evolutionary games; it just happens, like hyenas sneaking in bites at the lion’s catch. Conceivably, a new power could evolve that would make right wrong and wrong right. Ethics boards in an evolutionary future might punish the honest folks and reward the cheats. (Wait; that’s already happened—e.g., in communist countries built on Darwinian “ethics”.)
We shouldn’t let the Casadevalls, Schmidts and Kahnemans of the secular science community pretend righteous indignation when, to the scientific consensus, righteousness evolved by an amoral, aimless process of natural selection (9/12/2012). Only those whose worldview can ground righteousness in timeless, unchanging attributes of a righteous Creator have the justification for righteous indignation. This means that only Bible believers are qualified to rise up and demand honesty and integrity from scientists. Let them do their duty with all diligence, considering themselves, lest they also be tempted (Galatians 6:1-5).