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Scientific Misconduct Is A Bigger Problem Than You Think

Scientific Misconduct Is A Bigger Problem Than You Think

The recent dispute over a study published in Science is an occasion to look at the deeper problem in science publishing

Author: Trevor Quirk/Tuesday, May 26, 2015/Categories: Uncategorized, sustainability

Last week a dispute erupted over an apparently mendacious paper published in the prominent and credentializing journal, Science. The study claimed that people could alter their opinion on same-sex marriage if they spoke with a gay person for all of 20 minutes.

Despite the absence of a comprehensive investigation, this scandal looks to be the result of an overly ambitious graduate student at Columbia University. The verdict is still being sorted out, but he may have dickered with the data. I've omitted his name because I think he's experienced public shaming disproportionate to his alleged transgression, if only because of the subject of this study (if its subject had been in nanofabrication or epigenetics, would it receive this amount of coverage?)

And that's sort of going to be my point. Scientific misconduct, including plagiarism, falsification and fabrication, are barely covered by the widely-read media. Yet for the last decade at least, there's been a burgeoning concern that it might be more significant a problem than previously thought. In 2011, Richard van Noorden published an article in Nature describing the upward trend of retractions (i.e. paper's being withdrawn from their outlets for various reasons.) Not all retractions equate to misconduct, but many do (Noorden states about half of them do.) And the number of covered (and detected) retractions has risen recently thanks to a small and dedicated group of people.

For there is a whole sub-genre of science journalism that has formed around this subject. Adam Marcus and Ivan Oransky launched their useful blog, Retraction Watch, dedicated to covering the retraction process in scientific academe. Eugenie Samuel Reich, an intrepid reporter indeed, has published numerous investigative reports about scientific fraud. Back in 1982, Nicholas Wade and William Broad published the interesting but unreadably cranky Betrayers of the Truth, surveying the very history of scientific deceit.

As varying as their work is, they do share common themes, and implied questions. Such as: When does scientific conduct get designated a systemic problem?


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