Dealing with Scientific Fraud

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Dealing with Scientific Fraud

Scientific research is designed to improve our understanding of the world. But when that research is deliberately flawed, the conclusions are not only worthless; they cause irreparable harm.

The integrity of academic researchers, for example, is crucial when billions of dollars of taxpayers' money is being used for federal science. Likewise, billions of dollars spent on healthcare is predicated on the truthfulness of pharmaceutical research claims. In this case, bad science can lead to be more than just financial pain; it can cause physical pain as well.

Scientific fraud comes in various forms, including:1

  • Cherry-picked results
  • Poor or nonexistent controls
  • Confirmation bias
  • Opaque, missing, or unavailable data
  • Plagiarism
  • Stonewalling

These practices can have a long-term, compounding effect because science involves the building of collective knowledge. Bits of information and conclusions are added in small increments. Theoretical foundations are built upon by successive generations of scientists — and if that foundational "truth" is in fact flawed, then the time, effort, and money spent building upon that truth are all a waste, and ultimately in vain.

As scientific fraud has become more pervasive, there has been yet another damaging effect. The public has begun losing faith and confidence in science.

The irony is that science is just as reliable as it's always been. It is flawed science masquerading as sound science that is causing the loss of confidence.

The problem is that flawed and fraudulent science is not taking place in just a few isolated instances. Its amazing pervasiveness was highlighted by a short-lived Web site that documented egregiously suspicious research results. In its six months of existence in the second half of 2012 before being shut down, Science-fraud.org, a crowdsourced reference site much like Wikipedia, brought to light around 500 examples of conclusions in peer-reviewed publications that warranted serious questions. As a result of the site, many of the published findings were subsequently retracted.2

This small sample, and the tens of millions of dollars in misappropriated research funds that financed the studies cited, offer insight into the true scope of the problem. It revealed that scientific fraud has gone from being rare to being an everyday occurrence.

Other evidence of this is the rising number of retractions across multiple scientific publications. The Web site Retraction Watch has brought this to light, while also revealing that even prestigious universities and large pharmaceutical companies are not immune...

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