Kimberly Hatfield Freelance Writer GEN

Scientific Misconduct Is Jeopardizing the Quality and Integrity of Journals

Enter a new era of doubt for scientists, one where the uncertainty lies within. Questions around scientific misconduct and publishing ethics are creating distrust on fields that not only rely on corroboration, but also have the ability to impact our health and wellbeing.

Scientific publication is running at a breakneck pace. In PubMed alone there are more than 26 million citations from more than 5,600 journals. Few would be surprised that a certain portion, about .04% of the annual biomedical literature says the Office of Research Integrity, will be sanctioned for flaws in a process known as retraction. But what raised eyebrows was the fact that the retraction rate has increased ten-fold and could continue to rise. What’s worse was news from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) that the vast majority of papers retracted—67%—was due to fraud or suspected fraud, duplication, or plagiarism.

Scientific misconduct is not the only source of doubt and distrust. A study published by Science, “Estimating the reproducibility of psychological science,” found that less than half, and by some measures only about 36%, of studies in psychology had reproducible results. Reproducibility, a cornerstone of the scientific method, is also coming under fire.

The industry is still grappling with questions about rigor in science. A cottage industry of ethics groups and watchdog organizations such as the Center for Scientific Integrity has risen up to support and scrutinize publication ethics. COPE, the Committee on Publication Ethics for example, has seen their ranks grow from a small group of medical journal editors in 1997 to more than 10,000 members worldwide. 

Critics point to new influences like technology and the rise of unscrupulous “predator” publications and call into question the validity of the peer review process and the tremendous pressures on a system based on incentives. Some, like former British Medical Journal Editor Richard Smith, take it a step further and declare that the age of journals is over.

Editors and Ethics

Graham C. Parker, editor in chief of Stem Cells and Development, is not willing to throw the baby out with the bathwater. He agrees that increased scrutiny and reporting are highlighting retraction rates, but doubts that misconduct is an entirely new phenomenon.

That said, as an editor he has “seen it all” in terms of examples of deliberate misconduct such as images altered with a Sharpie. What surprises him is the extent to which unscrupulous authors errantly believe that the editors are not paying attention to what is being submitted. When in fact, he says, “I do take the editing very seriously.”

Charlotte Haug is an International Correspondent for the New England Journal of Medicine and served as Vice Chair of COPE from 2011-2015. She agrees that editors serve an important role as gatekeepers.

“I absolutely feel that editors are responding to misconduct and that they care a lot about the quality and integrity of their respective journals. The problem is that there are so many forces working against them: Researchers are rewarded for publishing many articles, rather than fewer of higher quality, and there is a lot of pressure on editors to have a quick turn-around-time for articles. That may make it tempting to cut corners for both researchers and editors,” she says.

Technology: Double-Edged Sword

One thing driving these shortcuts is technology. It is credited for facilitating many forms of fraud including plagiarism and fabrication of peer reviews.

One recent example is an article published in 2015 in Cellular and Molecular Neurobiology and retracted because the authors “admitted they falsified authorship and submitted the article under false pretenses.” In this case says Retraction Watch, the online voice for The Center for Scientific Integrity, a fake email address was used to imply authorship. Other examples include exploiting loopholes in electronic manuscript submission systems.

At the same time, technology has played a crucial role in helping publications catch one of the more frequent causes of research misconduct—plagiarism. Researchers estimate lifted copy can account for about 10% of misconduct cases. 

Many publications are turning to technology for help. Carol Shoshkes Reiss, editor in chief of DNA and Cell Biology, began using plagiarism detection software, iThenticate, in 2015. It can help verify the originality of the paper by comparing it to a database that includes more than 38 million scholarly articles.

Year to date they have rejected 28 papers out of about 200, or about 14%, for either plagiarism or grossly detected data manipulation.

“Before we regularly applied iThenticate, we relied on our own non-scientific scanning of papers or that of our reviewers, who are terrific, to find plagiarism. As to data manipulation, once someone looks carefully, it can be detected visually, and there is software to confirm,” she says. 

Test of Time

Despite current pressures, the long-term impact of quality research cannot be doubted. “We’ll have some papers from even 15 years ago that continue to get cited year after year,” Parker says. “There’s your proof that what is good works, because it survives the test of time,” he says.


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