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Academia’s seamier side: Lying, cheating and fraud

(Courtesy of Retraction Watch)

The following events, among many, many others, were reported in the past six weeks by the blog Retraction Watch:

  • A prominent accounting professor was accused by his university of fabricating data for a journal article on accounting fraud, of all things, and then destroying the evidence stored on his computer. Investigators at Bentley University in Massachusetts said in a report issued July 21 that his “whole body” of work while at Bentley must be considered “suspect” and recommended that academic journals review some 50 of his published papers. His lawyer says he’s innocent but according to investigators, he provided no information to dispute the charges.
  • The journal PLOS ONE retracted three peer-reviewed bio-chemistry papers, saying that there “are no data available underlying” them and that “the published results are fabricated.”
  • The Journal of Surgical Research retracted a paper on prostate surgery due to “academic misconduct and data falsification on the part of one of the authors.”
  • The Journal of Gastrointestinal Cancer retracted a paper after discovering the authors plagiarized not one, not two, but five other scholarly articles.
  • An HIV vaccine researcher formerly employed by Iowa State University and accused of spiking rabbit blood samples to make lab results look better is arrested and charged with fraud, pleading not guilty.
  • And, of course, the now-infamous Journal of Vibration and Control retracts 60 papers after investigators discover a “ring” run by a scientist that allegedly rigged the peer review process, by which experts review and recommend the work of other experts for publication.

This is but a sample, and just in the past six weeks.

The seamier side of academia, lying, cheating and occasionally stealing, this is the world revealed by a blog which, by all rights, should be dry and boring, like its name, “Retraction Watch.”

It was founded four years ago and is run by two journalists with science backgrounds, Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus. Oransky, is vice president and global editorial director of MedPage Today. An M.D. from the New York University School of Medicine, he is also a clinical assistant professor of medicine. Marcus is managing editor of Gastroenterology & Endoscopy News and Anesthesiology News. He has an M.A. in science writing from Johns Hopkins University.

Through tips, scouring academic literature and government investigations from places like the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Research Integrity, they’ve managed to corner the market on first sightings of academic wrongdoing, as well in the more garden-variety retraction notice, error rather than purposeful deceit.

Both varieties represent a small fraction of the world’s academic research, to be sure, and other fields, including journalism, have their own sins.

But in academic disciplines that take pride in their rigor, Oransky says the fraction of retractions is increasing. “It’s important to put it in context,” says Oransky. There are at least 500 retractions a year, he said, but between 2001 and 2010, “the number has grown 10 times” while the number of papers published every year grew only about 44 percent.

“Number of retractions up tenfold. Number of papers up 44 percent.”

A 2012 review of more than 2,000 articles in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that in biomedical and life-science research, the majority of retractions (67 percent) were actually attributable to misconduct and that  “the percentage of scientific articles retracted because of fraud has increased 10-fold since 1975.”

The annual reports at HHS’s Office of Research Integrity also show an increase in misconduct among researchers receiving federal funding: According to the latest, for 2012, ORI received 423 allegations of misconduct in 2012, an increase of 56 percent over 2011 and well above the 1992-2007 average of 198. ORI made finding of research misconduct in 40 percent of the 2012 cases, up from a historical average of 36 percent.

The ORI reports of recent months alone are themselves eye-opening, many of them involving falsification of data by researchers at the most prestigious institutions, including in 2013 and 2014, the Harvard Medical School, the Mount Sinai School of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health.

The causes: To some extent, Oransky says, it’s that people are paying more attention and have the ability to look at papers online, and to use software that detects plagiarism, for example. But he (and many others) also attribute it to increased competition for attention among researchers at a time when funding has been decreasing, particularly government funding.

There’s also a problem with peer review, the process by which other scholars are asked to read and vouch for a paper prior to publication. “I’ve done peer review,” said Oransky. “If you do it properly, it takes significant time. If you do the math on the time it takes, there aren’t enough scientists” around to actually do a decent job on a regular basis. “Journals don’t like to hear that. A lot of their business model has to do with volume. It takes scandals every now and then to jolt people awake.”

The rise in retractions is keeping both him and Marcus, and now an intern, very busy. “We have far more tips than we can ever cover … a steady stream every day.”

They would like to expand and are seeking funds to do so. They are confident, based on what they’ve seen and continue to hear, that behind some of the otherwise “routine” retractions, are stories that are anything but routine.

Many, like the case of James Hunton, an accounting professor at Bentley University, start with what appears to be a simple retraction, in his case a “voluntary” retraction of an article in Accounting Review, an error he said was based on a mix up of data he obtained from observing a large CPA firm.

When asked to provide data, Hunton said a confidentiality agreement with the firm prevented him from doing so. Later, the university received information that caused them to question a second Hunton paper, this one in Contemporary Accounting Research.

Ultimately, according to the investigation by a panel at the university, he was cautioned to “retain all relevant documents” concerning both papers.

He resigned, however. And afterward, the report said, “Bentley discovered … that his office had been completely cleaned out of all physical files, and that his laptop had been wiped clean of electronic files.”

The report, released July 21, concluded: “Based on the totality of the evidence, the evidence found among Dr. Hunton’s files, the evidence missing from Dr. Hunton’s files, and negative inferences based on Dr. Hunton’s conduct, the conclusion that the data reported in these two papers were fabricated is compelling.”

Neither The Post, nor the Boston Globe, which broke the story on July 21, could reach Hunton for comment. He cited “health” and “family” reasons when he resigned, the Globe reported.