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2023: A Year of Fraudulent Science

Are research papers becoming less trustworthy?

In 2023, 10,000 research papers were retracted. This is almost twice as many as in 2022.  What is going wrong?

Papers are retracted for several reasons, notably scientific misconduct, error, plagiarism, or violation of ethical guidelines. 

These statistics raise serious concerns about the integrity and quality of scientific research. Scholarly websites are designed to evoke trust in the researchers  to see an increase in retracted papers may reduce readers’ trust in the coming years.

Cases of article retraction span from smaller universities to the most prestigious. One of the most notable cases in 2023, was the retraction of behavioural science papers by Francesca Gino, a Harvard University professor. Gino was accused of data manipulation in more than four papers. More recently, Harvard’s president, Claudine Gay resigned amid allegations of plagiarism in her academic writing. 

In 2009, the dangers of scientific misconduct were also exemplified by that of German anesthesiologist Joachim Boldt. With 186 retractions, he had sparked one of the biggest medical scandals of the time. Boldt published a study supporting the use of albumin as a priming solution. His results were startlingly congruent with his hypothesis, leading them to be questioned by Steven Shafer, a professor of anaesthesiology at Columbia University at the time. Upon investigation, it was clear that no study had occurred at all. In fact, albumin is “associated with a significant increase in mortality and acute kidney injury.” After Boldt’s academic misconduct came to light, his work was investigated more widely and 185 other papers were retracted.

Whilst the staggeringly high number of retracted papers in 2023 can seem alarming, it may be indicative of positive change. Undetected cases of scientific fraud have likely been high for years whilst the improvement of detection tools has occurred. 2023 saw an increase in volunteers to comb through the academic literature, searching for anomalies.

Tackling scientific misconduct is an important challenge for 2024. Support for replication studies, research funding, and incentives for fraud investigation are all tools which can decrease academic fraud in the coming decades.

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