Fraud, plagiarism and other forms of misconduct are responsible for the majority of retractions in biomedical journals, according to a new study.
The finding, published online Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, contradicts earlier studies that suggest most retractions are the result of errors.
In a review of 2,047 retracted biomedical papers, study authors found that only 21% were withdrawn due to research error. But 67% were pulled due to misconduct, including fraud or suspected fraud, duplicate publication and plagiarism. Miscellaneous or unknown reasons accounted for the remaining 12%.
"Biomedical research has become a winner-take-all game -- one with perverse incentives that entice scientists to cut corners and, in some instances, falsify data or commit other acts of misconduct," said senior author Dr. Arturo Casadevall, a microbiologist and immunologist at New York's Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
Competition for funding, prizes, recognition and job promotions were cited as motivations for misconduct. The study found that those journals that were most influential, or possessed what is known among scientists as a "high impact factor," had particularly high rates of retraction.
While science journals do publish notices of retractions, Casadevall said they seldom cite the actual reason the study was pulled.
"Many of the notices are wrong," Casadevall said in a press release. "Authors commonly write, 'We regret we have to retract our paper because the work is not reproducible,' which is not exactly a lie. The work indeed was not reproducible -- because it was fraudulent. Researchers try to protect their labs and their reputations, and these retractions are written in such a way that you often don't know what really happened."
To determine the reasons for the retractions, study authors consulted National Institutes of Health Office of Research and Integrity and Retractionwatch.com, which investigates complaints of misconduct.
Study authors wrote that retractions for fraud or suspected fraud had increased tenfold since 1975. Casadevall said retractions also increased sharply after 2005, when the federal government reduced biomedical research funding.
The study also found that 43% of all retractions came from just 38 labs -- out of thousands worldwide.
Casadevall has suggested some solutions in a recent article in Infection and Community. Among those suggestions were developing more stable sources of research funding and less emphasis on a journal's impact factor when rating the periodicals.