Tuesday, August 28, 2012

7 October 2011 – Rise in Retractions


Today’s topic, in my humble opinion, ought to be relevant to all scientists.  In a new article, Nature magazine draws attention to a recent upsurge in retractions of scientific papers - a proportional change that vastly outstrips the increase in scientific publications.  There’s no need for extensive commentary on my part; the following figure from the article speaks for itself.

Now THAT’s a “hockey stick graph”.  And unlike the one from MBH98 that showed up in the IPCC TAR, this one is based on actual data.

What I find fascinating in this chart is not just that 44% of all retractions are for scientific misconduct (vice only 28% due to honest error), but the fact that fully one-third of all retractions are for plagiarism - and that more than half of these are for self-plagiarism, i.e., scientists deliberately publishing the same work, with only minimal cosmetic changes, over and over again in different fora. 

One would think that plagiarism would be the easiest sort of misconduct to avoid - after all, it boils down to “cite your sources”, and in the case of self-plagiarism, don’t.  In the age of the internet, where conducting textual comparisons is simple, automated, and de rigeur, plagiarism ought to be the easiest sort of misconduct to detect.  But for some reason it’s still a problem - the biggest problem - in scientific publications.  According to the authors of the Nature piece, the rise in retractions is probably due in large part to the increasing prevalence of software for detection of plagiarism - which suggests that it’s always been a problem, but we’re only now getting better at noticing it.  So in a way, the recent spike in retractions is good news.

Anyway, for anyone interested in looking at this phenomenon in greater detail, the article can be found here: [http://www.nature.com/news/2011/111005/full/478026a.html?WT.ec_id=NATURE-20111006].