Not in my journal: Two editors take stock of misconduct in their fields — and don’t find much
In an editorial titled “Scientific misconduct occurs, but is rare,” Boston University’s Richard Primack, editor of Biological Conservation, highlights a Corrigendum of a paper by Jesus Angel Lemus, the veterinary researcher who has retracted seven papers:
The authors Gerardo Jimenez, Leandro Melendez, Guillermo Blanco and Paola Laiolo provide in this issue a corrected version of the paper ‘Dampened behavioral and physiological responses mediate birds’ association with humans’ published in 2011 by Biological Conservation, 144/5:1702–1711. Data on bird physiology that could not be verified were removed from this corrected version. The results and discussion regarding bird behavior and habituation, community organization, and interactions, which constituted the main part of the original paper, are presented without change in this corrected Version.
Other journals took a harder stance on Lemus’s work. Primack writes his editorial:
Readers of this journal and other scientific journals might be concerned that this example and others reported in the press and scientific outlets suggest that scientific misconduct may be both widespread and increasing (Steen, 2010; http://retractionwatch. wordpress.com/), perhaps due increasing competition for jobs and research funding. However, we at Biological Conservation come to a very different conclusion.
In fact, this is the first case of serious scientific misconduct that we have seen over the past 9 years of the journal, during which time around 2000 papers have been published. Consequently it appears that scientific misconduct in this area of biology is actually quite rare. In fact, analysis by Steen (2010) suggests that retractions of scientific papers occur at a rate of 1–3 papers per 10,000 published. It is also possible that there are undetected cases of misconduct that were never uncovered. However, we think that over the years, these would have been discovered if they existed.
That’s a reasonable assumption, but based on the sorts of reactions to such discoveries that we see — short version: swept under the rug — we have to politely disagree. That’s true even though we were paying attention to the fact that Primack “used the words ‘serious misconduct,’” as he asked readers to note.
Primack also described — without giving any details — two hair-raising examples of alleged misconduct:
In one paper, the authors stated that a reviewer was threatening physical violence and may have been engaged in inappropriate cyber-stalking. In another paper, the author asserted that the two reviewers were deliberately trying to wreck his career. We carefully investigated these charges, but we did not find any evidence for the accusations.
While we at Biological Conservation continue to be concerned and vigilant over the issue of scientific misconduct, we also remain impressed by the high ethical standards of the vast majority of the scientific community, including both authors and reviewers.
Ferric Fang, who wrote a 2012 paper with Steen and Arturo Casadevall finding that most retractions were due to misconduct, said he is “in agreement with Dr. Primack that the vast majority of scientists have high ethical standards.” However, he tells Retraction Watch:
it would be incautious to conclude that the approximately 1 out of 10,000 papers that have been retracted reflects the true prevalence of research misconduct, and that most fraudulent papers have been uncovered by now. What we have learned from surveys by Brian Martinson and others (reviewed by Fanelli) is that approximately 1 in 7 surveyed scientists claims to have witnessed serious misconduct and about 1 in 50 admits to having committed serious misconduct. These numbers suggest that misconduct is likely to be substantially more common than 1 in 10,000. Moreover, it can take years for a fraudulent paper to be retracted from the literature, and our ability as a scientific community to detect falsified or fabricated data in publications is far from perfect. Misconduct is often uncovered because of whistleblowers who have inside information not available to the reviewer, editor or reader. In assessing the problem of research misconduct, I would seek the middle ground between sensationalism and complacency. While it would be wrong to try to discredit science as a whole because of a few bad apples, it would be dangerous to ignore the seriousness of the misconduct problem and what it may be telling us about stress in the scientific enterprise. We should all be able to agree that any degree of research misconduct is too much, so it is appropriate to try to understand why it occurs and what can be done to prevent it.
To its credit, JAMA Facial Plastic Surgery has an exemplary record of keen oversight and selection of well-conducted research articles.
As far as I can determine, retractions of articles with misconduct in the surgical disciplines are less frequent than in other disciplines and the biosciences, although some recent retractions for scientific misconduct can be identified in the literature.
Holt listed three; we have a bunch more to add.
Retractions in the cosmetic and reconstructive surgery disciplines are fortunately very infrequent, although a couplet of recent retractions, in which the authors attempted to compare facial procedures experience during residency training among selected surgical subspecialties, deserves our attention. As noted in the journal, the reason for the retractions of these 2 articles was given as “(1) published proprietary information of Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) without permission from ACGME, and (2) incorrectly compared sets of information in the article(s).”18,19
Those two retractions were for Experiential Learning in Aesthetic Surgery Training: A Quantitative Comparison among Surgical Subspecialties and Reconstructive Surgery Training: Increased Operative Volume in Plastic Surgery Residency Programs, both of which appeared in a competing journal, Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery.
In June, there was in fact another retraction from the same journal, of “Histologic Results of Neuronal Anastomosis of the Microvascular Latissimus Dorsi Transplant,” because it “shares many duplicated items with another article published
in 2000 in another journal.”
But if you’re not looking for evidence of misconduct, you’re not going to find very much, are you? After all, as Holt concludes:
…the public must be made aware that the profession is acting on its behalf through oversight, fiduciary responsibility, and accountability. Korenman et al have stated the obligation very well, indeed: “The professional integrity of scientists is important to society as a whole and particularly to disciplines such as medicine that depend heavily on scientific advances for their progress.”