Scientists Behaving Badly: Publish or Perish


Last time, we talked about “scientists behaving badly” when they fail to report negative problems in clinical trials of drugs. With enormous pressures to get cancer-fighting drugs to market, there’s a big temptation to take shortcuts. Today, let’s talk about pressures of a different sort: publish or perish. A lot rides on getting your article published in a prestigious medical journal, ranging from getting tenure to landing lucrative research grants. But, publication in a peer-reviewed journal does not guarantee the reliability of a research study.

One of the most well-known cases of research fraud was perpetrated by Dr. Andrew Wakefield. His 1998 study described a link between the MMR vaccine and autism.  As a result, thousands of parents decided not to vaccinate their children. Six years later, a journalist found that Wakefield had falsified data and engaged in research misconduct.[1] We call that “fraud.” Surely, cases like Wakefield’s are rare. Or, does scientific misconduct happen more often than we think?

Articles retracted for fraud have increased 10-fold since 1975, and most of that has been in the last decade. Misconduct includes falsifying, fabricating, or modifying data, plagiarism, false attribution of authorship, and publishing the same paper in more than one journal. An October 2012 study ranked journals based on the number of articles retracted due to fraud. Science and Nature, two of the most prestigious journals, ranked in the top ten.[2]

A survey in 2009 found that approximately 2% of scientists admitted to having falsified data at least once, and up to 34% admitted to other “questionable” research practices.[3]

That takes us back to “publish or perish.” Many believe the publish-or-perish standard in academia is a big factor in the increases in fraud and misconduct. [4] A scholar’s chances at tenure, success and prestige is measured by grant money awarded and the number of articles published. Some Tier One universities expect a tenured-track professor to produce three research papers per year. This doesn’t allow for the time, care, and attention needed to conduct quality research. Furthermore, the system lacks proper accountability and oversight.[5]

The problems are deeper than the reputation of a journal or a researcher. Scientific fraud hurts people like you and me. First, your doctor may recommend the latest treatment based on a fraudulent study. Second, you might consent, based on the bad information the doctor received.  People can make significant health decisions, such as the refusal to immunize their children for fear of autism. Third, when fraudulent research is paid for by government grants, it’s a misuse of taxpayer dollars.

It doesn’t stop there. In a domino effect, subsequent studies that rely on the fraudulent studies lack reliability. When “scientists behave badly,” the ripple effect extends far beyond the tarnished credibility of scientific research.

So, instead of “publish or perish,” hasn’t the time come for us to search for a better way, a more honest scientific culture?

[1] Fang, Ferric C, R. Grant Steen, and Arturo Casadevall “Misconduct accounts for the majority of retracted papers” Proc. of Natl. Acad. of Sci. 110(3), 1137. See Table 3: Most cited retracted articles. Available at (accessed February 7, 2013).

[2] Ibid; Borenstein, Seth “Study: Fraud Growing in Scientific Research Papers” Huffington Post October, 2012; (accessed January 29, 2013).

[3] Fanelli, Daniele “How Many Scientists Fabricate and Falsify Research? A systematic review and meta-analysis of survey data” PLoS One, 4(5): e5738; (accessed January 29, 2013).

[4] Chatterjee, Jayanta “India needs to be cautious while following the American model of higher education research” Current Science 102(11), 1500; (accessed January 29, 2013); Colquhoun, David “Publish or Perish: Peer review and the corruption of science” The Guardian, September, 2011; (accessed January 29, 2013).

[5] Macilwain, Colin “The time is right to confront misconduct” Nature 488(7), August, 2012; (accessed January 29, 2013).




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