The site Retraction Watch sheds light on flawed academic publications.
Earlier this summer, a federal judge sentenced Dong-Pyou Han, an Iowa State University professor, to nearly five years in jail and ordered him to pay restitution totaling $7.2 million. It was an atypical sentence, given his crime: forging scientific data.
Han was an HIV/AIDS researcher at ISU, where his laboratory was testing a vaccine on rabbits. He tampered with experiments, and then used the false but promising results to secure grant funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
The case made headlines, and drew the ire of Iowa Senator Charles Grassley, who publicly questioned an earlier, lighter penalty imposed on Han.
The stiffer sentence, an outlier in the world of academic fraud, has grabbed the attention of the scientific community.
“People are wondering if there is this sea change now,” says Alison McCook, editor of the blog Retraction Watch. “Are we actually going to start prosecuting the biggest fraudsters that there are, because that would change a lot.”
Everyone makes mistakes
Most cases of scientific malfeasance rarely garner as much as attention as Han’s. McCook says even getting basic information on why a paper is being pulled from a scientific journal can be a challenge.
“We contact the journal editor or the author, or we try both, and in the best case, they tell us what happened. They tell us what part of the paper is affected, why it is affected, how this affects their conclusions, because sometimes it is just a figure or one aspect of the methodology that had a problem. And then the rest of the conclusions are fine,” she says.
That kind of information is valuable to scientists , who may want to build on someone else’s findings. To advance the research, you need to know what portions are still on solid ground, and what results are more shaky.
“Then the other responses we get are ‘no comment.’ We had a case in 2011 of an editor who told us it was ‘none of our damn business‘ what the reason [was]. So in that case it is really frustrating because, you know, everyone makes mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes. But what’s helpful is to explain how and why it happened, so people can avoid it in the future.”
Since Retraction Watch launched five years ago, McCook says she has seen a shift toward more detailed explanations.
And at least one publication made a public, if ultimately unsuccessful, push for higher ethical standards from its contributors.
“We had a great case of a journal, it was the Indian Journal of Dermatology, and they had taken a really hard line on plagiarism. They had banned authors in the past for plagiarism, and they published a piece from an author who himself had been the victim of plagiarism, and had really come out that the community really needs to take a hard line against plagiarism.
“He wrote some guidelines on how to spot plagiarism, how to handle it, what it means…and ultimately, that paper was retracted for plagiarism, which was just the most amazing thing. If you made that up, you would have thought it couldn’t be real. But it was.“
The Barry Bonds of retractions
There’s an estimated two-million academic papers published around the world each year, and only a tiny percent–around 500–wind up getting retracted.
Some of those flawed works are courtesy of repeat offenders, for which Retraction Watch keeps a leaderboard. Right now, the Barry Bonds of retractions is a Japanese anesthesiologist named Yoshitaka Fujii.
“He published a huge amount of papers, and for a very long time, people started thinking his data were just really clean, and in science, life is messy,” says McCook. “You don’t have clean data. You get a bunch of data and then you show a trend and that’s the result, but it is never clean. And so his just looked really pretty.”
Another anesthesiologist decided to take a look at that pretty data and do some of his own calculations. His results proved Fujii was massaging the numbers.
“So in the end, he had to retract over 180 papers, which is just a huge amount. I mean, it represents 7 percent of all retractions over a 30-year period. It is kind of mindboggling. So he is number one, and he’ll stay there for quite a while.”
Understandably, there’s often a bit of bunker mentality when these types of cases rise to the surface. McCook says no one, in any field, wants to be publicly outed for their mistakes.
“Well, I think beyond scientists, they are human beings. And human beings don’t like to admit they are wrong–it is embarrassing. I think sometimes I meet scientists and when they hear what I do they are a little afraid, because mistakes happen in all sorts of ways.
“I mean, of course, when you make a really bad mistake, you go to jail and have to pay millions of dollars. But most people, they’re just trying to get by, and maybe they’re stressed. Admitting the mistake, accepting the punishment that’s given to you and helping everyone else learn from it is the best response you can have.”