Fraudulent research results: how common are they?
Recent cases make one wonder how much dubious research slips through the peer-review process
Climate-change science has come under attack from fossil-fuel lobbyists. Above, heat waves distort a photograph of a flight taking off in Virginia. June 2014 was the hottest June on record in the US since data collection began in 1880. Photograph: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA
The recent news that two “ground- breaking” papers on stem-cell research by Japanese scientists have been retracted by the prestigious science journal Nature has raised the troubling issue of fraudulent results in science once more.
I first became aware of doubts concerning these papers at a lecture given earlier this month by Jim Malone, professor emeritus of medical physics at Trinity College Dublin. During a seminar on fraud in science at the Robert Boyle Summer School, Prof Malone cited the Japanese results as an example of research that was considered with great suspicion by other scientists in the field, contrasting such work with the altruism of Robert Boyle and his colleagues at the Royal Society.
In the papers, published in Nature in January 2012 by scientists at the Riken Institute in Japan, the authors claimed to have found a simple method of making versatile stem cells from simple blood cells in mice. However, suspicion arose when other groups were unable to reproduce the results, and errors were later found in the original research.
While it is unusual for a major journal to retract published papers, such cases have become more common in recent years. Many scientists blame the increasing competitiveness of the academic world, as more and more talented young researchers compete for research funding. Indeed, it is extremely difficult nowadays for young researchers to get appointed to a tenured position without a proven ability to attract research funding. In such an environment, it is hardly surprising that some give in to the temptation of “finding” results their supervisors want to hear.
But are such instances widespread or exceptional? Given the insistence of science that results must be reproducible, one might at first assume the latter. However, Prof Malone said this cosy assumption is shaken by the knowledge that a great many studies published in scientific journals attract few readers, and are therefore rarely checked; indeed, few prizes are awarded for confirming another group’s minor result. Thus, when ground-breaking work is found to be significantly flawed, one wonders what other dubious research is regularly slipping through the peer-review process.
Another question concerns fraud in different disciplines of science. While relatively few cases have come to light in physics or astronomy, it is of increasing concern in areas such as biomedicine and the pharmaceutical sciences. One factor here may be the enormous commercial implications of successful research in the last two areas, tempting researchers to claim results that are not yet definitive in order to establish priority.
However, one should not lose a sense of proportion in these matters. After all, the Nature results were withdrawn when it emerged that other groups were unable to reproduce the data – such is the power of science, as suggested by Boyle all those years ago.
To my mind, a much more serious threat to modern science comes from the opposite process, when well-established scientific findings are dismissed as fraudulent by outside agencies such as extreme religious groups, industry lobbyists and political think tanks.
Science has been under attack from such agencies for some time now, from tobacco companies that sought to undermine the science that established a link between smoking and diseases such as lung cancer to extreme religious groups that cannot accept the theory of evolution.
Most serious of all are the recent efforts by fossil-fuel lobbyists and many conservative politicians to cast doubt on the findings of climate scientists. While a great many studies by numerous scientific teams worldwide have shown unequivocal evidence of global warming, and that the phenomenon is strongly linked with carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels, their findings are routinely dismissed as fraudulent or exaggerated by some parties. While any scientist would point out that such a worldwide scientific conspiracy is simply not possible, the notion has become entrenched in the narrative of right-wing media pundits and conservative politicians, so that it continues to impact on government policy, particularly in the US and in Australia.
To paraphrase Winston Churchill, science may have its flaws, but it remains by far the most reliable method of investigating the world we inhabit.
Dr Cormac O’Raifeartaigh lectures in physics at Waterford Institute of Technology and is a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society