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Dissembling for Dollars

October 4, 2012

One aspect of science that appealed to me very early in my life was that people could be smart and honest, and their candor would be appreciated.  That’s still true, and I imagine that it also still attracts geeks everywhere to careers in science and technology.  But what happens when money comes into play?  If you believe the report at the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, it can lead to disturbing results.

A review of retractions in medical and biological peer-reviewed journals finds the percentage of studies withdrawn because of fraud or suspected fraud has jumped substantially since the mid-1970s. In 1976, there were fewer than 10 fraud retractions for every 1 million studies published, compared with 96 retractions per million in 2007.

The study authors aren’t quite sure why this is happening. But they and outside experts point to pressure to hit it big in science, both for funding and attention, and to what seems to be a subtle increase in deception in overall society that science may simply be mirroring.

The number is still very small.  I have great respect for scientists and the pressure they face in many circumstances.  As a body, they are known for reporting results, letting others poke at them, and advancing research as a result.  However, the growth that was found is still a big change.  The study found that 43 percent of the retractions in scientific papers could be linked to fraud, with other fraudulant effects like plagerism moving that needle to nearly two-thirds.

In science, he [author, Arturo Casadevall] said, “there’s a disproportionate reward system” so if a researcher is published in certain prominent journals they are more likely to get jobs and funding, so the temptations increase.

“Bigger money makes for bigger reasons for fraud,” said New York University bioethicist Arthur Caplan. “More fame, more potential for profit… Some of the cheating and fraud is not too dissimilar to the cheating and fraud we’ve seen in banking.”

Money is a powerful motivator.  And if you look at prominent scientific research areas like climate or medicine, there’s plenty of money flowing that influences too much.  What concerns me more is where the results are not fraudulent, but are interpreted in an incomplete manner.  Where interpretation of results doesn’t cover everything, a peer review can’t find fault with the results.  So the direction shifts, and it increases the overall distrust of results.  This eventually could break down belief in the scientific method, and that concerns me more than anything else.

Hopefully we see a reverse of this trend, or at least more peer attention to the complete story.  Without a solid grounding in fact, I worry about our future.

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