When Scholarly Articles Are Fraud, Whim, or Total Insanity

“Elsevier says it is investigating how one of its journals managed to publish a paper with patently absurd assertions about the genetic inheritance of personality traits,” I read in the newsletter of Retraction Watch, a brilliant ten-year-old project undertaken by two scientists. Regularly appalled by what passes for research, they decided to track the small-print retractions—and see how long the ridiculous, inflated, or fabricated articles had floated before publishers got wise. (In one case, a dozen years; in another, sixteen.)

The RW newsletter is often livelier than Vanity Fair, chronicling eccentrics, pretenders, idiots, and outright con artists. After enduring 23 retractions in scholarly publications, a priest reportedly “plagiarized when ghostwriting for Canada’s most senior Vatican figure.” In 2018, a grad student at MIT, Tomáš Pluskal, used artificial intelligence software to “write” a paper that was promptly published in Drug Designing & Intellectual Properties International Journal—with Kim Kardashian as the first author. (The editors had requested no revisions.)

The paper on personality that troubled Elsevier too late, “Temperament gene inheritance,” asserts that “temperament is regularly inherited by the son from the mother, and by the daughter from the father.” I giggle, then pause for a minute: I did inherit my father’s temperament, and my husband his mother’s. Still.

Another Elsevier publication, a book soberly titled Advances in Genetics, includes a chapter that suggests COVID-19 arrived on a meteorite—specifically, “a presumed relatively fragile and loose carbonaceous meteorite, that struck North East China on October 11, 2019.” The long list of authors includes a scientist who claimed two decades ago (debunked then, too) that flu came from space.

Elsevier is now embarrassed. But even when retractions are issued, they show up in the scientific literature, not the popular press that seized on the original idea and blasted it all over the world on social media. My mind replays, chipmunk speed, all the times an editor suggested “beefing up” a story by citing scientific research. All the times someone I love fell ill and I combed frantically through journal articles. Deceit’s consequences can ripple.

One paper, for example, gave hope, heralding a promising way to open up solid tumors to T cell therapies—only to have that hope snatched away when its data was questioned. And it took sixteen years to retract an article that relied on an earlier retracted article in The Lancet—the one that started a panic by linking childhood inoculations to autism.

There is also a literal cost to all this chicanery: Duke University had to pay the U.S. government $112.5 million because a researcher (no longer on its faculty) used phony data in grant applications worth tens of millions to the school. Harvard Medical School had to ask journals to retract thirty-one papers from the lab of Dr. Piero Anversa, who had built an international reputation for his research in cardiac stem cells but, it turned out, with questionable data.

I pore over old RW newsletters. Researchers in India stole a paper during the review process and published it under their own names—until the similarities were spotted and it was retracted. Maria Cristina Miron Elqutub, formerly of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, confessed using her own blood in lieu of samples from nearly 100 patients. The world record, 183 retractions of a single scholar’s work, is held by Yoshitaka Fujii, a Japanese researcher in anesthesiology.

What prompts this behavior? Or is the better question why most scientists continue to play by the rules, given the enormous tedium, restraint, caution, and self-discipline they require? I can imagine someone panicking, alone in a lab, realizing they had made a small error that was about to multiply. Or working with another scientist but not quite grasping that person’s work. Or investing all hope in an outcome that failed to materialize. But then we move to the extreme cases, driven I am guessing by extreme personality disorders. The attention hounds with no conscience. The grandiose superstars who cannot admit failure. The masqueraders who have whipped up a c.v. and a persona they are now desperate to maintain.

And all these people are messing with our minds.

There are so many ways to deceive. Images get manipulated, data is spun from whole cloth, authors show up who do not in fact exist, credentials are invented, peer review is rigged, citations are traded as favors, and with frightening frequency, bias masquerades as science—as in the classic retraction of a paper which claimed that Jesus cured a woman with flu. The Virology Journal editor-in-chief added a note to that retraction, making the terse understatement that an “‘analysis of a case of high fever that happened 2000 years ago in Biblical time’ clearly does not provide the type of robust supporting data required for a case report.”

Did no one think of that during what is usually a months-long review period?

Political science grad Michael LaCour was en route to a tenure-track position at Princeton University after co-authoring a paper in Science that claimed short conversations with “gay canvassers” could change people’s minds about same-sex marriage. The paper broke, as we say, the internet; gave activists fresh hope in human nature; and even inspired an episode of This American Life. Then two grad students dove into the data with gusto, only to find that LaCour had faked it, and the survey company he claimed to use had never heard of him. The paper was retracted; I am sure the editors at Science were mortified. But in this instance, we can see just how much has to be taken on faith (traditionally seen as science’s opposite). Short of calling the survey company themselves, how was an editor to know? Fact-checking has real limits when you are looking at (supposedly) original research. Hence peer review, which ought to work except that often the peers are overworked, exhausted, distracted, not sufficiently familiar with the topic, or pals with the researcher.

In case you are thinking these examples are juicy but rare, Retraction Watch says “journals now retract about 1,500 articles annually—a nearly 40-fold increase over 2000.” Pressure on researchers has ratcheted up, I suppose. Certainly technology is slicker, making it far easier to manipulate images. And—this is good news, though sad—scrutiny has intensified. Editors are growing more vigilant, science reporters are growing warier, and we are losing that comforting old assumption that scholarly publication guarantees substance, verified fact, ethical conduct, and integrity.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.