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New study: 'Fraud behind two-thirds of pulled medical papers'

Surge in retracted findings linked to funding cuts

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Medical boffins are rarely wrong when they publish in journals - but some are prepared to lie quite a lot, according to a new study on retracted scientific papers.

Previous studies have claimed that most papers are pulled from publication because there's some error in them, but this fresh investigation claims malpractice is actually responsible for two-thirds of all retractions.

Boffin misconduct includes copying others' findings and plagiarism, but fraud and suspected fraud are the biggest problem and that's increased ten-fold since 1975. For this new study, 2,047 biomedical and life-science research articles indexed by PubMed that were retracted by 3 May, 2012 were reviewed.

The researchers aren't sure why so many scientists are now willing to steal their results, but the increasingly desperate competition for funding might have something to do with it.

Milking governments for cash for projects with no obvious monetary value has always been tough, but the global recession is making it worse - and it's feared some scientists have bent their findings to suit paymasters' agendas to guarantee funding.

"Scientists are human, and some of them will succumb to this pressure, especially when there's so much competition for funding," said Arturo Casadevall, a professor of microbiology, immunology and medicine at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.

The academic, who is the senior author of the study, continued: "Perhaps our most telling finding is what happened after 2005, which is when the number of retractions began to skyrocket. That's exactly when National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding began to get very tight.

"What's troubling is that the more skilful the fraud, the less likely that it will be discovered, so there likely are more fraudulent papers out there that haven't yet been detected and retracted.

"Particularly if you get your papers accepted in certain journals, you're much more likely to get recognition, grants, prizes and better jobs or promotions. 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."

Previous studies took the word of the journals' retraction notices, which are written by the boffins who penned the pulled papers, for why the work was withdrawn. Prof Casadevall's study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, looked at secondary sources such as the NIH Office of Research Integrity and Retractionwatch.com, which investigates scientific misconduct. ®

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