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Why Has the Number of Scientific Retractions Increased?

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      BackgroundThe number of retracted scientific publications has risen sharply, but it is unclear whether this reflects an increase in publication of flawed articles or an increase in the rate at which flawed articles are withdrawn.Methods and FindingsWe examined the interval between publication and retraction for 2,047 retracted articles indexed in PubMed. Time-to-retraction (from publication of article to publication of retraction) averaged 32.91 months. Among 714 retracted articles published in or before 2002, retraction required 49.82 months; among 1,333 retracted articles published after 2002, retraction required 23.82 months (p<0.0001). This suggests that journals are retracting papers more quickly than in the past, although recent articles requiring retraction may not have been recognized yet. To test the hypothesis that time-to-retraction is shorter for articles that receive careful scrutiny, time-to-retraction was correlated with journal impact factor (IF). Time-to-retraction was significantly shorter for high-IF journals, but only ∼1% of the variance in time-to-retraction was explained by increased scrutiny. The first article retracted for plagiarism was published in 1979 and the first for duplicate publication in 1990, showing that articles are now retracted for reasons not cited in the past. The proportional impact of authors with multiple retractions was greater in 1972–1992 than in the current era (p<0.001). From 1972–1992, 46.0% of retracted papers were written by authors with a single retraction; from 1993 to 2012, 63.1% of retracted papers were written by single-retraction authors (p<0.001).ConclusionsThe increase in retracted articles appears to reflect changes in the behavior of both authors and institutions. Lower barriers to publication of flawed articles are seen in the increase in number and proportion of retractions by authors with a single retraction. Lower barriers to retraction are apparent in an increase in retraction for “new” offenses such as plagiarism and a decrease in the time-to-retraction of flawed work.

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      Most cited references 31

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      Measuring the prevalence of questionable research practices with incentives for truth telling.

      Cases of clear scientific misconduct have received significant media attention recently, but less flagrantly questionable research practices may be more prevalent and, ultimately, more damaging to the academic enterprise. Using an anonymous elicitation format supplemented by incentives for honest reporting, we surveyed over 2,000 psychologists about their involvement in questionable research practices. The impact of truth-telling incentives on self-admissions of questionable research practices was positive, and this impact was greater for practices that respondents judged to be less defensible. Combining three different estimation methods, we found that the percentage of respondents who have engaged in questionable practices was surprisingly high. This finding suggests that some questionable practices may constitute the prevailing research norm.
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        How Many Scientists Fabricate and Falsify Research? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Survey Data

        The frequency with which scientists fabricate and falsify data, or commit other forms of scientific misconduct is a matter of controversy. Many surveys have asked scientists directly whether they have committed or know of a colleague who committed research misconduct, but their results appeared difficult to compare and synthesize. This is the first meta-analysis of these surveys. To standardize outcomes, the number of respondents who recalled at least one incident of misconduct was calculated for each question, and the analysis was limited to behaviours that distort scientific knowledge: fabrication, falsification, “cooking” of data, etc… Survey questions on plagiarism and other forms of professional misconduct were excluded. The final sample consisted of 21 surveys that were included in the systematic review, and 18 in the meta-analysis. A pooled weighted average of 1.97% (N = 7, 95%CI: 0.86–4.45) of scientists admitted to have fabricated, falsified or modified data or results at least once –a serious form of misconduct by any standard– and up to 33.7% admitted other questionable research practices. In surveys asking about the behaviour of colleagues, admission rates were 14.12% (N = 12, 95% CI: 9.91–19.72) for falsification, and up to 72% for other questionable research practices. Meta-regression showed that self reports surveys, surveys using the words “falsification” or “fabrication”, and mailed surveys yielded lower percentages of misconduct. When these factors were controlled for, misconduct was reported more frequently by medical/pharmacological researchers than others. Considering that these surveys ask sensitive questions and have other limitations, it appears likely that this is a conservative estimate of the true prevalence of scientific misconduct.
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          Misconduct accounts for the majority of retracted scientific publications.

          A detailed review of all 2,047 biomedical and life-science research articles indexed by PubMed as retracted on May 3, 2012 revealed that only 21.3% of retractions were attributable to error. In contrast, 67.4% of retractions were attributable to misconduct, including fraud or suspected fraud (43.4%), duplicate publication (14.2%), and plagiarism (9.8%). Incomplete, uninformative or misleading retraction announcements have led to a previous underestimation of the role of fraud in the ongoing retraction epidemic. The percentage of scientific articles retracted because of fraud has increased ∼10-fold since 1975. Retractions exhibit distinctive temporal and geographic patterns that may reveal underlying causes.

            Author and article information

            [1 ]MediCC!, Medical Communications Consultants, LLC Chapel Hill, North Carolina, United States of America
            [2 ]Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University Bronx, New York, United States of America
            [3 ]University of Washington School of Medicine Seattle, Washington, United States of America
            Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientifics, Spain
            Author notes

            Competing Interests: RGS owns MediCC! Medical Communications Consultants LLC, a medical communications company. This does not alter the authors’ adherence to all the PLOS ONE policies on sharing data and materials.

            Conceived and designed the experiments: RGS AC FCF. Performed the experiments: RGS AC FCF. Analyzed the data: RGS AC FCF. Contributed reagents/materials/analysis tools: RGS AC FCF. Wrote the paper: RGS AC FCF.

            Role: Editor
            PLoS One
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            Public Library of Science (San Francisco, USA )
            8 July 2013
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            This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

            Pages: 9
            The authors have no support or funding to report.
            Research Article
            Science Policy
            Research Assessment
            Research Validity
            Research Errors
            Peer Review
            Publication Practices
            Research Monitoring
            Research Integrity
            Publication Ethics
            Scientific Misconduct



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