You saw this in last week’s QOTW, from the editor of the Lancet:
The apparent endemicity of bad research behaviour is alarming. In their quest for telling a compelling story, scientists too often sculpt data to fit their preferred theory of the world. Or they retrofit hypotheses to fit their data. Journal editors deserve their fair share of criticism too. We aid and abet the worst behaviours.
If your immediate response was “Yeah? Name one,” here’s one:
In April of 2000, the journal Anesthesia & Analgesia published a letter to its editor from Peter Kranke and two colleagues that was fairly dripping with sarcasm. The trio of academic anesthesiologists took aim at an article published by a Japanese colleague named Yoshitaka Fujii, whose data on a drug to prevent nausea and vomiting after surgery were, they wrote, “incredibly nice.”
In the language of science, calling results “incredibly nice” is not a compliment it’s tantamount to accusing a researcher of being cavalier, or even of fabricating findings.
“Incredible,” after all, is the opposite of “credible.”
But rather than heed the warning, the journal, Anesthesia & Analgesia, punted. It published the letter to the editor, together with an explanation from Fujii, which asked, among other things, “how much evidence is required to provide adequate proof?” In other words, “Don’t believe me? Tough.”
This is the “double-down” technique made famous by dozens of really inept politicians. And Fujii stood his ground, until:
Over the next two years, it became clear that he had fabricated much of his research most of it, in fact. Today he stands alone as the record-holder for most retractions by a single author, at a breathtaking 183, representing roughly 7 percent of all retracted papers between 1980 and 2011. His story represents a dramatic fall from grace, but also the arrival of a new dimension to scholarly publishing: Statistical tools that can sniff out fraud, and the “cops” that are willing to use them.
Speaking of statistics, here’s one: if Fujii’s 183 withdrawn papers represent only 7 percent of the retractions, there were something like 2,600 papers retracted in those twenty-one years. That’s a lot of backpedaling.