In an unsettling trend, the number of peer-reviewed scientific articles that have been retracted has increased by as much as 10-fold in the past decade. And this trend isn’t limited to small, obscure publications, high profile journals like Nature and The New England Journal of Medicine have also seen a recent rise in the number of retractions. In his incisive article in The New York Times, Carl Zimmer lists several factors that might be contributing to this trend, such as the rise of online publishing bringing these journals to a wider audience, and thus increasing the likelihood that errors and misconduct will be spotted? Has the increase 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? Or perhaps it is because the paper contains no scientific content. Such was the case for a paper titled “Computer application in mathematics” for which the journal of Computers & Mathematics with Applications issued the following retraction notice,
This article has been retracted at the request of the Publishers, as the article contains no scientific content and was accepted because of an administrative error.
On a quasi-related note to the increased rate of retractions, is a recent obituary in the Chicago Tribune for Facts. Where it is noted that after years of health problems, Facts has finally died. The obituary discusses how opinions have replaced facts as the new truth, and that for many people who already have opinions, seeing in the news an affirmation of the opinion they already have confirms their opinion as fact. The political season has always been hard on Facts, and according to the obit, the adamant comments by Rep. Allen West that 80 members of the Congressional Democrats are members of the Communist Party, and his continued assertion of that fact, despite all evidence to the contrary, was the final straw. The obit ends by noting that Facts is survived by two brothers, Rumor and Innuendo, and a sister, Emphatic Assertion, and in lieu of flowers, mourners should make a donation to their favourite super PAC. NPR notes that their is another sibling of Facts that is doing fine, and that is Truthiness. Is it possible that the recent rise in retraction rates can be attributed to Truthiness asserting itself into science? A scary thought.
The next couple of posts will be about the pervasiveness of Truthiness, and how it is rearing its head in many issues.