Friday, 18 October 2013 00:00

“Publish or Perish” and the Plague of Scientific Misconduct

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retractedIt is truly alarming to see the sharp increase in retractions in the scientific literature due to misconduct such as outright fraud and data falsification. To put the rising trend in perspective, the number of articles retracted due to misconduct, rather than errors, has increased ~10-fold since 1975 [1]. Multiple studies have tried to explain this distressing trend by providing information on the numbers of scientists who knowingly committed misconduct (for examples, see [2-5]), studying the patterns in retractions from different journals [6], or even analyzing details about the scientists committing misconduct [3]. However, I believe a look at the causes is necessary in order to battle this epidemic.

A major problem scientists face at any level is the dire job market. The number of scientists available for any position has increased exponentially, while the number of available positions has not. In addition, the judging criteria to get an interview for a faculty position are focused on the number and impact factor of your publications. Your quality, based on the "publish or perish" environment, requires high-impact and novel publications that "challenge current dogma" or "add a new arrow" to a signaling pathway— something on the order of discovering the double helix structure might suffice. This means that if you don't get a paper published in the "holy trifecta" of journals during your graduate school or postdoctoral career, you can expect a difficult time ahead while looking for faculty jobs.

A recent turn-around on that topic is a DORA-based approach to faculty recruitment that some schools are taking (for more on that read: "Hiring Faculty by DORA Rules Puts Principles Into Practice Says Sandy Schmid"). Is this reason enough to cheat and falsify data? Not really. But add in the external life pressures that are likely kicking in around that time (aging parents, starting a family, other growing-up life happenings) along with the pressure to kick-start your career, and it could be a recipe for disaster.

While scientific fraud may have evolved and the avenues for its occurrence increased, the mechanisms of detection have also advanced to deal with the current scourge: Applications to detect image manipulation are now used at most (if not all) journals coupled with a requirement by many journals for additional, raw data images (which are published in supplemental data) to identify image manipulation prior to publication. In addition, there are lots of programs (e.g., Turnitin, Write Check and ithenticate) to distinguish plagiarized or copied text, and these are used on manuscripts as well as theses and other university documents.

With the available methods for detection and removal (aka. retraction) of scientific misconduct, the best way forward is prevention of misconduct altogether. Approaches for prevention include ethics courses that outline and define the rules toward proper research conduct. Also, working to catch this misconduct, reveal it, and discuss the major consequences it has could serve as a deterrent.

At the end of the day, you can cheat but you can't hide and scientific misconduct will be identified eventually, whether by reviewers and editors poring over the raw files and text, or by fellow scientists in the field attempting to replicate published data, by whichever method by which it is detected, the consequences are dire. Once scientific credibility is lost, it is nearly impossible to get back, and a long sought-after scientific career is ruined.



1. Fang FC, Steen RG, Casadevall A (2012). Misconduct accounts for the majority of retracted scientific publications. Proc Natl Acad Sci 109:17028-33. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1212247109.

2. Fanelli D (2009). How many scientists fabricate and falsify research? A systematic review and meta-analysis of survey data. PLoS One 4:e5738. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0005738.

3. Fang FC, Bennett JW, Casadevall A (2013) Males are overrepresented among life science researchers committing scientific misconduct. MBio 4:e00640-12. doi: 10.1128/mBio.00640-12.

4. John LK, Loewenstein G, Prelec D (2012). Measuring the prevalence of questionable research practices with incentives for truth telling. Psychol Sci 23:524-32. doi: 10.1177/0956797611430953.

5. Martinson BC, Anderson MS, de Vries R (2005). Scientists behaving badly. Nature 435:737-8. doi: 10.1038/435737a.

6. Steen RG, Casadevall A, Fang FC (2013). Why has the number of scientific retractions increased? PLoS One 8:e68397. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0068397.

Hashem Dbouk

Hashem is a postdoctoral fellow in Dr. Melanie Cobb's lab at UT Southwestern, in Dallas, Texas. His long-term research interests focus on identifying protein-protein interactions and the mechanisms by which they regulate functions of kinases, with research spanning WNKs and PI3-Kinases.

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