More frequent discovery of research misconduct

The Macchiarini affair in Sweden has directed the spotlight onto research misconduct. Linköping University researchers Solmaz Filiz Karabag and Christian Berggren show in a new study that the problem is also serious within the social sciences. The number of cases revealed is increasing rapidly, and scientific journals find themselves compelled to take measures to combat researchers who cheat.

The Macchiarini affair in Sweden has directed the spotlight onto research misconduct. Linköping University researchers Solmaz Filiz Karabag and Christian Berggren show in a new study that the problem is also serious within the social sciences. The number of cases revealed is increasing rapidly, and scientific journals find themselves compelled to take measures to combat researchers who cheat.

Karabag and Berggren, both active at LiU, have examined all articles that were retracted from scientific journals in management, business and economics, in the period 2005 to 2015. A total of 184 articles were retracted – and the trend is upwards. No retractions were found before 2005, while the number in 2015 was an all-time high.

“We cannot definitely say that misconduct is increasing: It may be the case that detection has become better,” says Christian Berggren, professor of industrial management. “What we do know, however, is that the pressure to publish has become much higher during the past 10-15 years.”

“Publishing articles has become crucial for a researcher’s chances when competing for positions,” Senior Lecturer Solmaz Filiz Karabag points out.

“Universities want productive and frequently cited researchers, which means better results in rankings and increased funding.”

Mainly plagiarism 

The Linköping researchers believe that the degree of competition for positions and grants may tempt some researchers to operate in a borderline area. Some may cross the border into research misconduct.

Photo credit: unknown“It doesn’t have to be a case of life and death as it was in the Macchiarini affair. It is, of course, dramatic when you claim that a surgical method is successful at the same time that the patients are actually dying,” says Christian Berggren.

The misconduct examined in the study was mainly plagiarism and the fabrication of data.

“While it is true that this does not actually cause harm, the work steals resources from genuine contributions and undermines public confidence in researchers.”

And we are probably just seeing the tip of an iceberg.

Karabag and Berggren initially sent a questionnaire to the editors of 60 journals that had retracted articles. It had not been an easy decision to take. Many editors were reluctant to go so far as the retraction of an article since this often leads to the perpetrator losing his or her employment. Such researchers are prepared to defend their honour with all available means – which may include hard-handed legal representatives.

“At the same time we found that the scientific journals are deeply interested in these matters. We distributed the next questionnaire to 1,000 journals. Nearly half of the 300 who replied had introduced programs to reveal plagiarism before publication,” says Solmaz Filiz Karabag.

Photo credit: unknownSeveral editors were eager to receive help not only with improvements in the measures to take after the event, but also with encouraging more creative and reliable contributions. The study presents some suggestions, everything new forms of review to tougher requirements that relevant raw data files should be submitted with the article.

The study also discusses the phenomenon known as “salami publishing”, in which researchers slice up their results into as many thin parts as possible, in order to maximise the number of articles published. Just over half of the editors saw this as a growing problem.

Scientific journals have crucial role

The study has already aroused considerable reaction.

“We recently sent it to all scientific journals in the field and to researchers who have inspired us. We received immediate reactions from all around the world,” says Solmaz Filiz Karabag.

And now a lively debate has begun. The two authors are quick to point out the crucial role that scientific journals have in dealing with research misconduct.

“This is why it’s a scandal that the prestigious medical journal ‘The Lancet’, which was a major contributor to Macchiarini achieving such fame, has still not retracted his seriously misleading articles,” concludes Christian Berggren.

Footnote: The study is entitled ”Misconduct, marginality and editorial practices in management, business and economics journals” and has been published in PLOS One, an open source journal.