Close to 35,000 scientific papers may need to be retracted

Credits: Pixabay

A study examining 960 articles has revealed this alarming number. But rest assured, the majority are due to honest mistakes. In fact, the fault lies in the different printers used during duplications, which are not precise enough!

“A picture paints a thousand words” – Confucius.

However, it seems that in order to better understand certain articles, it is best to read them. The results of this study confirm that the current system of scientific publications has an inbuilt fault. 

Paper reproductions are not reliable enough

The scientists who carried out the study are not pointing the finger at the papers themselves, but at the resulting reproductions. In fact, before a paper is published, there seems to be no quality controls completed on the reproduction of figures and images. 

Furthermore, certain images get duplicated, and passed from person to person within the journal office. So much so that the final image in the article may be of poor quality, and could have undergone major changes. 

A study led on 960 articles

The study was conducted by 5 scientists:

  • Arturo Casadevall
  • Elisabeth M. Bik
  • Ferric C. Fang
  • Amy Kullas
  • Roger J. Davis

These 5 researchers used articles that appeared in the journal Molecular and Cellular Biology (MCB) between 2009 and 2016 for their sample. Their results showed that of the 960 articles examined, 59 of them needed to be corrected due to errors in the publication of the figures. This represented 6.1% of the articles.

A responsive chief editor

Once the team of scientists highlighted the problem to the chief editor of the journal, the authors of each article were contacted and made aware of the problems. This led to 42 corrections, five of which involved full retractions, and 12 cases in which no measures could be taken for several reasons: the laboratories being closed, or the amount of time that had passed since publication.

Retractions caused problems

In the case of retractions, there are questions regarding the authors’ reliability and honesty. In fact, the study shows that these images had been so heavily manipulated as to no longer be accurate. It may be that certain images were intentionally retouched. But such things cannot be proven.

Furthermore, even if there were only 5 articles retracted out of a sample of 960, this analysis throws the reliability and credibility of scientific publication of print journals into question. 

“If this sample is representative, then no less than 35,000 articles in scientific literature are candidates for retraction due to image duplication”, claim the scientists.

A study that serves as a warning

Professor Bik had previously carried out a similar study on articles in the field of biomedicine. It was found that 4% of the articles contained false statements.

“Studies like ours are intended to make editors and their peer reviewers more aware”, says Bik. “Picking up errors before publication is a much better strategy than after publication.”

This couldn’t be more true, as after having signalled the problem to the editor, it took at least 6 hours to deal with the various information brought into question. It would have probably taken only around 30 minutes to correct the faults, if they had been spotted prior to publication.

Bik then stated, “I also expect, unfortunately, that people who really want to commit acts of scientific misconduct will get better at retouching images and generating illustrations that cannot be identified as false by the naked eye.” Thus, her study aims to increase awareness among editors and readers.

As you have seen in the article, Professor Bik regularly publishes her research on Twitter. She never – or very rarely – provides the names of the authors or the journals. What she aims to do is continue to raise awareness – she herself never condemns the journals. 

Source : ScienceAlert – BioRxiv

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