In a new paper out today in PLOS ONE [see update at end of post], Daniele Fanelli, Rodrigo Costas, and Vincent Larivière performed a retrospective analysis of retractions and corrections, looking at the influence of supposed risk factors, such as the “publish or perish” paradigm. The findings appeared to debunk the influence of that paradigm, among others:
The hypothesis that males might be prone to scientific misconduct was not supported, and the widespread belief that pressures to publish are a major driver of misconduct was largely contradicted: high-impact and productive researchers, and those working in countries in which pressures to publish are believed to be higher, are less-likely to produce retracted papers, and more likely to correct them. Efforts to reduce and prevent misconduct, therefore, might be most effective if focused on promoting research integrity policies, improving mentoring and training, and encouraging transparent communication amongst researchers.
Some factors were associated with a higher rate of misconduct, of course — a lack of research integrity policy, and cash rewards for individual publication performance, for instance. Scientists just starting their careers, and those in environments where “mutual criticism is hampered,” were also more likely to commit misconduct.
There are policy implications to the beliefs in what drives retractions, the authors add: Some institutions have been adjusting the way they evaluate scientists based on concerns that pressure to publish threatens integrity, and in the U.S. (and elsewhere), universities must implement training in research integrity for early-career scientists, out of the belief they are most prone to misconduct.
We were interested to note that the researchers included corrections in their analysis of scientific integrity — which, as they say, have been “surprisingly overlooked by scholars”:
Unlike retractions, corrections carry no stigma and do not affect the publication record, so they have no direct consequence on a scientist’s career. Unlike retractions, which are often accompanied by litigations and lengthy investigations (for current examples see retractionwatch.com), corrections are typically a friendly process, often solicited spontaneously by the authors of the erroneous paper.
Since scientists volunteer to correct their papers as a way of righting the record, corrections “may be considered manifestations of scientific integrity,” the authors explain:
It follows that any sociological or psychological factor that increases the risk of scientific misconduct, and therefore the likelihood of retractions, should have, at a minimum, a smaller (null) effect on corrections, and possibly even an opposite effect.
Fanelli, who has published a number of studies of retractions and scientific misconduct, and colleagues finish their paper with the “multiple theoretical and practical implications” of their findings:
In conclusion, our results suggest that policies to reduce pressures to publish might be, as currently conceived, ineffective, whereas establishing policies and structures to handle allegations of scientific misconduct, promoting transparency and mutual criticism between colleagues, and bolstering training and mentoring of young researchers might best protect the integrity of future science.
Although the findings appear to contradict an earlier paper suggesting that men were more likely to commit misconduct, Fanelli and his team noted some hints at a link between gender, misconduct, and career status.
We asked Ferric Fang, some of whose work on retractions is contradicted by the new study, for comments on the paper; he reviewed it with Arturo Casadevall, with whom he’s written many of those papers (such as the one suggesting men commit more misconduct). Fang, who is a member of the board of directors of The Center For Scientific Integrity, Retraction Watch’s parent organization, told us that he and Casadevall had “serious reservations about this paper’s methodology and conclusions:”
The authors express the surprising and somewhat contrarian viewpoints that publication pressure is not a major driver of research misconduct and that males are not more prone to misconduct. However for a number of reasons we find the authors’ arguments to be unpersuasive.
For one, Fang notes, retracted papers are not homogenous, and treating them that way could lead to a type II error — failing to detect a true existing effect. Similarly, using authors’ first names to study the relationship between gender and misconduct, without first determining whether misconduct had occurred, or by whom, “favors the erroneous acceptance of a null hypothesis,” wrote Fang.
He also noted that corrections are not “typically a friendly process,” as the authors of the study suggest:
As a journal editor-in-chief, I have seen many corrections, and I can assure you that they arise for a host of reasons. Some are certainly innocent but others are suspicious yet may lack sufficient evidence of fraudulent intent to warrant a retraction. In addition Arturo and I have encountered a number of corrections in the literature that appear to be fraud masquerading as honest error.
On the most surprising finding of the paper, Fang wrote:
The authors are dismissive of a large body of evidence in which scientists have admitted to fraud or other questionable research practices and have explicitly linked their actions to career pressures. A recent study not cited by the authors found a strong correlation between publication pressure and scientific misconduct. There are also well documented case studies in which individuals found to have committed research misconduct have directly ascribed their actions to pressures to obtain publications, jobs, or funding.
Fang added that the paper completely misrepresented his, Casadevall’s and colleague Grant Steen’s views on a key question: Since retractions are now more common, is scientific misconduct on the rise, as well? Specifically, the paper cites Fang, Casadevall, and Steen’s work when making this assertion:
Analyses of retraction notices recorded in Medline have led researchers to suggest that scientific misconduct is growing and is particularly common in high-impact journals…
Fang took issue with that characterization of their work:
Steen wrote that ‘one possible interpretation of these results is that the incidence of research fraud truly is increasing… another possibility is that the incidence of fraud has not increased appreciably but journals are making a far more aggressive effort to self-police’. Arturo and I were similarly cautious, stating that ‘overall manuscript retraction appears to be occurring more frequently, although it is uncertain whether this is a result of increasing misconduct or simply increasing detection due to enhanced vigilance’. Scientific misconduct may in fact be growing, but we have not made that claim and are not presently aware of definitive evidence for or against this possibility.
In case you crave more science publishing news, a co-author of the paper, Vincent Larivière, has another article in PLOS ONE today, showing that “five publishing companies control more than half of academic publishing.”
Update, 8:30 p.m. Eastern, 6/10/15: There was a miscommunication about the embargo for this paper. We had been told it was today at 2 p.m. Eastern, but it has been changed to 12:00 a.m. Eastern on 6/17/15 because of the need to add a correction to the manuscript. The link above to the paper
will become active at that time.
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