October 4, 2012

Misconduct is a major factor in retracted research

UW Health Sciences and UW Medicine

Dr. Ferric Fang’s main area of study is pathenogenic bacteria and the immune response, or how the human body’s cells react to dangerous bacteria. But the UW professor of laboratory medicine and microbiology also studies human behavior, specifically what motivates retractions in scientific research.

His most recent study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has touched a nerve in the scientific community and beyond.

A graph depicting retracted research papers.A 2011 report in Nature identified how many scientific papers had been retracted that year, but not necessarily the reason (because of errors or plagiarism, for example). In the new research, Fang and Dr. Arturo Casadevall of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York found that among 2,047 papers retracted since 1977, misconduct—blatantly falsified data or data manipulation— was the cause in 41 percent of the cases.

Casadevall and R. Grant Steen of MediCC! Medical Communications Consultants in Chapel Hill, N.C., are Fang’s coauthors on the PNAS paper.

The research was spurred by Fang’s own experience. A couple of years ago, in his capacity as editor in chief of the journal Infection and Immunity, he was contacted by a medical school dean who told him that a reviewer noticed something suspicious in a paper submitted to another journal. The same author had previously published a number of articles in Infection and Immunity. After an investigation by the author’s institution, the author was forced to retract more than 30 papers, including the ones in Fang’s journal. The idea that this misinformation might have remained in the literature was unconscionable, Fang said.

He noted previous research by Dr. Donald Kornfeld, a Columbia University psychiatrist, that referred to those who commit such fraud as perfectionists, “ethically-challenged” and even “sociopathic.” Trainees who commit fraud are afraid of failure, while faculty members who do so display “a conviction that they could avoid detection,” said Kornfeld.

Fang is wary of the current system of scientific research and publications, particularly the competitiveness that seems to prize quantity and journal reputation over quality.

UW researchers can air suspicions about research fraud to the Office of Scholarly Integrity on campus, and are protected from retaliation by a Washington state “whistleblower” law.