A rise in the number of studies published in scientific journals has been accompanied by a surge in retraction notices, casting into doubt findings that influence everything from government grants to prescriptions written for patients, a Wall Street Journal analysis found.
Citing data compiled by Thomson Reuters, the Journal found a steep rise in retraction notices in peer-reviewed research journals, from just 22 in 2001 to 339 last year. The number of papers published in such journals rose 44 percent in the same time frame. The article pointed to other studies finding that fraud and misconduct were becoming incrasingly prevalent.
The article noted that new scienctific studies look to past research for guidance, so that a flawed study can cause a cascade of faulty or fruitless research: for example, when the renowned Mayo Clinic had Mayo Clinic found that data about using the immune system to fight cancer had been fabricated, seventeen scholarly papers published in nine research journals had to be retracted.
In addition, doctors rely on research to prescribe the most effective treatment. An ultimately discredited study suggesting that two high blood pressure drugs worked better in concert led doctors to put more than 100,000 patients on a treatment schedule that may offer no benefits and dangerous side effects.
Part of the problem is that scientists are locked in competition for the prestige and money that flows from being published in a recognized journal.
"The stakes are so high," said the Lancet's editor, Richard Horton. "A single paper in Lancet and you get your chair and you get your money. It's your passport to success."