Unlike statements during political debate, scientific papers present facts. The discussion may include some speculation about the ultimate meaning of those facts, but papers generally tell a story of data and meaning.
Unless someone makes a big mistake or outright lies.
Each day seems to bring to light a new scandal and retraction (the blog Retraction Watch has plenty of material), events that seem to be accelerating over the course of my 20 years in academic medicine.
Retractions in the Medical Literature: Who is responsible for scientific integrity? by R. Grant Steen in the current issue of the American Medical Writers Association Journal caught my eye. The study examined the PubMed database for biomedical research papers retracted from 2000-2010. Almost 5 million publications resulted in 788 retractions over that decade. [Including 88 review articles - how does a review get retracted?]
Both the number of articles retracted and the time to retraction increased over the past decade as shown in the graph. The continuous line represents the number of subsequently retracted articles that were published in a given calendar year; more retracted articles were originally published in 2006 than in any other year. The data points in columns represent the number of months between publication and retraction, categorized by year of retraction.
In 2000, 4 articles were retracted and the longest time to retraction was 8 months; in 2004, 49 articles were retracted and the longest time to retraction was 50 months; in 2009, 184 articles were retracted and the longest time to retraction was 117 months. A total of 788 retracted articles are represented as data points in this figure (many points overlap).
So which journals suffered the most retractions? The table shows glamor mags take the prize:
One could argue that authors are more dishonest now than in the recent past. This interpretation is consistent with the finding that the number of article retractions has increased significantly in recent years. However, it seems unlikely that a cultural change in the past decade has prompted this increase. Instead, journal editors may have become more aware of misconduct after the publicity about Schön, leading them to set a lower threshold for retraction when an article comes under question. These reasons may also explain why the time to retraction has increased in recent years: Journals are making a more aggressive effort to weed out questionable articles, even if they were published long ago.
One could also argue that the importance of high-impact publications for grant funding and career advancement may make the risk of fabrication or falsification of data more acceptable to researchers.
So ultimately, who is to blame when retraction occurs? Obviously, the authors must bear most of the burden, but Steen argues that the editors of the "repeat offender" journals should also hold responsibility:
Editors are gatekeepers for their journals, and if a journal does not offer a trusted brand, what does it offer? Some scientists have already blamed journal editors for failing to provide a rigorous review for papers before accepting them for publication.
Rigorous peer review may help uncover fraud or fabrication, but, as the editor of Science wrote, "It is asking too much of peer review to expect it to immunize us against clever fraud."
Ultimately, we all must retain a degree of skepticism about anything published in the literature. Even a brilliant series of experiments, performed and published in good faith, can be undone by one negative study with a new technique or tool. Authors, reviewers, and editors all must do their jobs to insure the integrity of the scientific literature.