In an article in today’s New York Times, “A sharp rise in retractions prompts calls for reform,” Carl Zimmer documents and analyzes the sharp increase in the proportion of papers retracted in the scientific literature. From 2000-2009 the trend is disturbing (pictured above).

The article notes:

In October 2011, for example, the journal Nature reported that published retractions had increased tenfold over the past decade, while the number of published papers had increased by just 44 percent. In 2010 The Journal of Medical Ethics published a study finding the new raft of recent retractions was a mix of misconduct and honest scientific mistakes…

Retractions, of course, reflect not just scientific misconduct, but honest mistakes that were caught later. My suspicion, though, is that most of them involve either misconduct or the publication of quick-and-dirty results that aren’t checked carefully enough. Zimmer posits that, in case of simple error, the wider proliferation of journals online makes those errors easier to spot. To me this is insufficient to explain the huge rise shown above, but that’s just a feeling. (Of course, there have been well-documented cases of fraud.) The root cause of fraudulent or quick-and-dirty publication is increasing pressure to publish and get grants, leading to more anxiety and careerism:

But other forces are more pernicious. To survive professionally, scientists feel the need to publish as many papers as possible, and to get them into high-profile journals. And sometimes they cut corners or even commit misconduct to get there.

To measure this claim, Dr. Fang and Dr. Casadevall looked at the rate of retractions in 17 journals from 2001 to 2010 and compared it with the journals’ “impact factor,” a score based on how often their papers are cited by scientists. The higher a journal’s impact factor, the two editors found, the higher its retraction rate.

The highest “retraction index” in the study went to one of the world’s leading medical journals, The New England Journal of Medicine [NEJM]. In a statement for this article, it questioned the study’s methodology, noting that it considered only papers with abstracts, which are included in a small fraction of studies published in each issue. “Because our denominator was low, the index was high,” the statement said.

The NEJM’s claim makes no sense to me: the size of the denominator (number of papers with abstracts) shouldn’t affect the average number of retractions, only the variance around the mean.

And let me reproduce what Zimmer says about the changing nature of science, a pernicious trend with which I agree 100%:

In such an environment, a high-profile paper can mean the difference between a career in science or leaving the field. “It’s becoming the price of admission,” Dr. Fang said.

The scramble isn’t over once young scientists get a job. “Everyone feels nervous even when they’re successful,” he continued. “They ask, ‘Will this be the beginning of the decline?’ ”

University laboratories count on a steady stream of grants from the government and other sources. The National Institutes of Health accepts a much lower percentage of grant applications today than in earlier decades. [JAC: The same is true at the National Science Foundation, where funding has dropped to about 7% of applications.] At the same time, many universities expect scientists to draw an increasing part of their salaries from grants, and these pressures have influenced how scientists are promoted.

“What people do is they count papers, and they look at the prestige of the journal in which the research is published, and they see how many grant dollars scientists have, and if they don’t have funding, they don’t get promoted,” Dr. Fang said. “It’s not about the quality of the research.”

Dr. Ness likens scientists today to small-business owners, rather than people trying to satisfy their curiosity about how the world works. “You’re marketing and selling to other scientists,” she said. “To the degree you can market and sell your products better, you’re creating the revenue stream to fund your enterprise.”

Indeed. Getting a grant used to be a means to an end: it provided the money to help us do the research to understand nature. There’s now been a curious inversion of priorities, in which the research itself becomes the means to procuring the end: the grant money, needed by universities to pay for their facilities and faculty salaries. All of us at research universities are feeling increasing pressure to get grants. Once, for example, I was offered a job at another university. My own school offered me a raise and some research money to stay, but in return I was asked apply for more grants—this despite the fact that in my entire career I have been funded by a single, multiply-renewed NIH grant that was ample for my research. I didn’t need any more grant money, but my university did!

Zimmer interviews some scientists who suggest solutions (one of which I heartily approve is to judge the quality of work produced by a scientist more than the grant money accrued or the number of publications), including capping the amount of money that can go to a single laboratory. Will these changes be made? I doubt it. The money culture of science seems unstoppable.