Science Gone Wrong: Retractions, Errors & Fraud in the Scientific Community

2023 saw a record-breaking 10,000 papers retracted, according to an analysis by Nature. These retractions represent a disturbing trend, raising concerns about research misconduct and the prevalence of false research. Many retractions go unnoticed by the scientific community and the public. Here we’re going to look into the current issues surrounding scientific paper retractions.

Why Are Scientific Papers Retracted?

Research paper retractions occur when:

  • The findings are no longer considered trustworthy
  • As a result of scientific misconduct or error
  • They plagiarize previously published work
  • They’re found to violate ethical guidelines

Retraction of Highly Cited Paper

Investigating Scientific Misconduct

According to Fang et al. (2011), journals are not primarily responsible for scientific misconduct investigations. “That responsibility rests with the author’s institution (, ) and, if funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is involved, the Office of Research Integrity.”

Role of Journals

While journals do not have the primary responsibility for investigating misconduct, they play a crucial role in maintaining the integrity of scientific research. If an editor suspects misconduct, they can request raw data from authors for review.

Reporting Suspected Misconduct

If misconduct is suspected, the journal should contact the author’s institution and recommend an inquiry.

Frequency of Retractions

The frequency of retractions varies with different journals and some of them have higher rates than others.

Retraction Watch is monitoring retractions and has a searchable database of them, in addition to sharing a list of the Top 10 Most Highly Cited Retracted Papers.

Top 3 Most Highly Cited Retracted Papers

These retractions are from a list compiled by Retraction Watch, in October of 2023. Please visit their blog post for updates and to see their top 10 list in full.

1. Primary Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease with a Mediterranean Diet. N ENGL J MED; APR 2013. (Retracted in 2018)

  • Link to Study
  • Articles citing it before retraction: 1656
  • Articles citing it after retraction: 824
  • Total: 2480

Reason for Retraction

Error in the randomization procedures affecting a portion of participants.

  • The republished study revealed the issues related to randomization, including: enrollment of household members without randomization; allocation of several clinics instead of individual patients at 1 of 11 study sites; and inconsistent use of randomization tables at a study site.

2. Predictive Validity of a Medication Adherence Measure in an Outpatient Setting. The Journal of Clinical Hypertension. May 2, 2008. (Retracted in 2023)

  • Link to Study
  • Articles citing it before retraction: 1904
  • Articles citing it after retraction: 16
  • Total: 1920

Reason for Retraction

According to the retraction statement issued, “Following publication, concerns were raised by a third party regarding the statistical analysis presented in the article. The Journal conducted an independent statistical review of the article and concluded that the results were misleading due to issues regarding the sensitivity and specificity of the medical adherence scale used.”

3. MicroRNA signatures of tumor-derived exosomes as diagnostic biomarkers of ovarian cancer. Gynecologic Oncology. June 25, 2008. (Retracted in 2023)

  • Link to Study
  • Articles citing it before retraction: 1862
  • Articles citing it after retraction: 11
  • Total: 1873

Reason for Retraction

According to the retraction statement issued, “The article is retracted following an internal investigation by the University of Louisville and an investigation by the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) which found evidence of falsification, fabrication, and plagiarism of data.

All authors have been notified of the retraction. As such this article represents a severe abuse of the scientific publishing system. The scientific community takes a very strong view on this matter and apologies are offered to readers of the journal that this was not detected during the submission process.”

Harvard-Affiliated Cancer Hospital Retractions

In January of 2024, numerous news articles revealed that researchers at a Harvard-affiliated cancer hospital were preparing to retract 6 studies, and correct 31 others, as part of an ongoing investigation into potential image manipulation.

For Better Science is a crowd-source project and website focused on exposing fraud in the scientific community. Leonid Schneider founded the site and works as an independent science journalist. According to his website, he has “around 13 years of biomedical research experience in molecular cell biology, stem cells and cancer research.”

An article on For Better Science, written by Sholto David, illuminated the problems and potential manipulations in research conducted by top scientists at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, in Boston. The article showed numerous examples of potential image duplication and manipulation, in addition to naming the scientists and showing the images in question. He used an AI-based tool called Imagetwin to assist him in finding potential errors.

Web-Based Tools to Detect Research Manipulation

Paid Tools

Imagetwin is an AI-tool that can be used to help detect image fraud and manipulation in research studies. They charge about $27 USD per image scan.

Proofig AI is an AI-powered image proofing to identify resuse, alterations, splicing, rotation, scaling, and more. They charge $99 USD per year.

Free Tool

Forensically is a set of free tools for digital image forensics, which includes: clone detection, error level analysis, meta data extraction and more. It is made by Jonas Wagner. You can read a bit more about it in this blog post.

I’ve personally used this tool and found it to be extremely useful. I recommend looking up video tutorials on Youtube to understand the different features and how it all works.

 

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Darren

Holly, this is amazing. Good work! I’m so glad there are brilliant people like you pointing these things out. Thank you for doing this. I had no idea there were thousands of papers retracted in a single year. I’m guessing the ones that are retracted are only the tip of the iceberg. When it’s common for the RESULT of the experiment to be paid for by those with a conflict of interest, then the experiment is built around getting that result, it has become hard for me to trust almost any scientific paper. That is a shame because I know… Read more »

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