Good science is a continual process, susceptible at many points to introduced errors and outright manipulation by the misguided and the devious. It’s critically important, as public faith in science continues to be tested, to take an honest look at some of the ways good science can be turned into something that misleads and erodes public trust.
1. Publication Bias Stunts the Free Flow of Ideas
Publication in a top journal like Nature or the New England Journal of Medicine is the “coin of the realm” in science, says Ivan Oransky, vice president and global editorial director of MedPage Today and the founder of Embargo Watch. Unfortunately, research has shown that journals suffer from publication bias—subjectively favoring some studies over others.
“Positive publication bias” is the tendency for the leading journals to print positive studies and avoid publishing negative ones. Oransky notes that many journals make revenue from selling copies of published studies. When pharmaceutical companies use positive clinical trial results in their drug sales pitches, for example, they pay for many reprints—reducing the incentive for journals to run less lucrative stories on drug trials that didn’t work out.
It helps with any journal’s branding to publish ooh-ahh findings and breakthrough discoveries that result in citations in other papers, and that “impact factor” can introduce a different bias. “There’s a straight line between the sexiness of a study’s results and its number of citations,” Oransky says. With a premium on papers with citation-worthy big outcomes, prestigious journals sometimes overlook basic but useful research papers.
The case of the antidepressant reboxetine is one example of publication bias. Ben Goldacre, a doctor and author of The Guardian’s Bad Science column working hard to blow the whistle on publication bias, discovered that seven clinical trials had been conducted on the drug. Only one—the one with the smallest number of participants—found reboxetine had a marked benefit vs. a placebo. That study was published, and the other six were not, giving doctors a false impression of consensus.
2. Scientists Commit Fraud, Leading to Retractions
Each year, more than a million scientific papers are published in hundreds of peer-reviewed journals—and between 400 to 500 of these are later retracted. That’s a very small percentage, admits Adam Marcus, the managing editor of two medical publications and co-founder, with Oransky, of the watchdog blog Retraction Watch. The big problem, Marcus says, is that two-thirds of retractions stem from researcher misconduct: fraud, fabrication, plagiarism or other ethical failures. The general public may not hear about every retraction, but some cases are so egregious they make headlines.
Take discredited anesthesiologist Scott Reuben. In 2009, he admitted fabricating data in 21 papers that praised the benefits of pain drugs like Celebrex and Lyrica. Or Haruko Obokata, a stem-cell researcher at Japan’s top institute, who had two papers published in Nature retracted this year. Obokata claimed she found a way to generate embryonic stem cells from an adult cell through simple stress, but her peers were unable to replicate the blockbuster results. But the world-record holder, according to Marcus, is Japanese anesthesiologist Yoshitaka Fujii with a grand total of 173 retractions for various offenses.
This kind of shoddy science, when widely reported, can have disastrous long-term impact. Disgraced British researcher Andrew Wakefield claimed, in a 1998 paper published in the Lancet, that the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine could cause autism in children. Following its investigation in 2011, the British Medical Journal concluded that Wakefield had misrepresented his 12 study subjects (some of whom did not have autism at all) and willfully faked data. But the widely cited results of this flawed study became the foundation of an anti-vaccine movement putting untold numbers of children at risk today.
As comfortingly low as the overall percentage of retractions may be, that number has increased tenfold since 1975. Greater scrutiny from watchdog groups and investigative journalists are bringing the growing problem into the open, in hopes of stemming the tide.
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