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Journal Editors Call for Reform in the Face of Increasing Scientific Retractions

Posted by David Rothschild on May 3, 2012 9:26:00 AM

reform journal editorsTwo years ago, Dr. Ferric C. Fang, editor in chief of Infection and Immunity, discovered that a published author within his journal was guilty of data manipulation.  Infection and Immunity responded by retracting the six papers submitted by Naoki Mori; 24 of Mori’s other papers have since been retracted by other scientific journals.

Prompted by this bad experience, Dr. Fang, with the help of another editor at the journal, Dr. Arturo Casadevall, decided to investigate how widespread this type of misconduct had become in the scientific community. The results of the investigation were disturbing. They concluded that retractions from scientific journals are rising and that this trend is a symptom of fundamental problems in today's scientific climate.

The New York Times recently reported on Fang and Casadevall’s findings and calls for reform, which were highlighted in the editorials they published in the May, 2012, edition of Infection and Immunity. They also presented their findings to the National Academies of Sciences.

Fang and Casadevall cite the intense pressure to be published in prestigious journals among the primary contributing factors to this problem. For a researcher, professional success can depend on getting many papers published in high impact journals. High publication rates can give scientists an edge in securing jobs and grants, both of which are available in diminishing numbers in today's economic climate. In addition, promotions are often awarded based on the amount of papers a scientist has published and how much grant money he has secured. These career pressures create a rush to publish that causes some scientists to cut corners on research and, in some cases, resort to misconduct.

Potential for Misconduct Reform

Fang and Casadevall have suggested a number of reforms to the system. They state that the place to begin in changing what they call a “dysfunctional scientific climate” is to ensure that graduate students first are given a better understanding of the basic rules of science.

The two suggest moving away from the prevailing “winner-takes-all” system, which leads to grants being concentrated among a small percentage of scientists. Capping grants that can potentially be received by each lab is one method proposed to change that system, along with modifications in the way that scientific discoveries are credited.

Presently, discoveries are credited according to the “priority rule,” which bestows all credit to the scientist who first publishes their results. As a result, Casadevall feels that research teams ending up placing too much significance on secrecy and speed; rushing research in order to publish ahead of competitors. He suggests that the rules for scientific prizes should be changed by taking collaboration into account when making decisions on promotions.

If some combination of these reforms are brought to fruition it could very well improve the current rate of misconduct in submissions to scientific publications.  However, there will never be a 100% safety net purely based on systematic reform.  This is why reform always must be meshed with technology to detect and prevent those cases of plagiarism with the potential to slip through the safety net.


Zimmer, Carl.  “A Sharp Rise in Retractions Prompts Calls for Reform.”  The New York Times.  April 16th, 2012.

Infection and Immunity. Volume 75, no. 11, p. 5223-5232, 2007.  “Heliobacteria pylori Induces CCL20 Expression.” American Society for Microbiology.

Normile, Dennis. “Japanese Virologist Loses Job, Gets Publishing Ban for Image Manipulation.” ScienceMag.Org. American Association for the Advancement of Science.  January 19th, 2011.