If science is broken, how do we fix it?

An unsettling pattern has emerged in the world of peer-reviewed, scientific publishing. In the last decade, the rate at which articles are retracted (meaning the study was published, only to later be dubbed unfit for print — typically due to either deliberate misconduct or an honest scientific mistake) has increased in some journals by as much as ten-fold. Meanwhile, the total number of papers published has increased by just 44 percent.

It bears mentioning that this pattern is in no way limited to small, obscure, or rarely-cited publications. The figures I just gave were actually self-reported last year by the journal Nature — one of the oldest, most highly regarded scientific periodicals in the world. In fact, a recent study suggests that the most prestigious journals actually tend to issue more retractions than their lesser-known counterparts.

In an incisive article published in yesterday's New York Times, Carl Zimmer explores the various factors thought to play a hand in this worrisome trend. Do high-profile journals like Nature and The New England Journal of Medicine simply attract more attention — and, therefore, closer scrutiny — than less influential publications? Has the rise of online publishing simply brought these journals to a wider audience, increasing the likelihood that errors and misconduct will be spotted? Or has increased pressure on tenure-seeking scientists to publish research more quickly, and in higher volume than their peers, given rise to a less-scrupulous breed of researcher?

Ultimately, this is an article that explores the scientific process itself, whether that process is broken, and — if it is — what can be done to save it. Included here is the introduction to Zimmer's piece, but you owe it to yourself to read it in full. Check it out over at The New York Times.

Zimmer begins:

In the fall of 2010, Dr. Ferric C. Fang made an unsettling discovery. Dr. Fang, who is editor in chief of the journal Infection and Immunity, found that one of his authors had doctored several papers.

It was a new experience for him. "Prior to that time," he said in an interview, "Infection and Immunity had only retracted nine articles over a 40-year period."

The journal wound up retracting six of the papers from the author, Naoki Mori of the University of the Ryukyus in Japan. And it soon became clear that Infection and Immunity was hardly the only victim of Dr. Mori's misconduct. Since then, other scientific journals have retracted two dozen of his papers, according to the watchdog blog Retraction Watch.

"Nobody had noticed the whole thing was rotten," said Dr. Fang, who is a professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine.

Dr. Fang became curious how far the rot extended. To find out, he teamed up with a fellow editor at the journal, Dr. Arturo Casadevall of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. And before long they reached a troubling conclusion: not only that retractions were rising at an alarming rate, but that retractions were just a manifestation of a much more profound problem - "a symptom of a dysfunctional scientific climate," as Dr. Fang put it.

Continue reading on The New York Times.