A matter of concern for bioethicists, researchers and scientific journals is fraud in scientific research and misconduct

Much has been written about the fraud linked to scientific publications, a problem that, far from diminishing, is increasing over time.

But the controversy that accompanies them is not limited to fraudulent work, but also to the selection criteria of the articles received or the rigor in evaluating their quality.

The current protagonism acquired by the scientific media means that they are becoming not only the reference indicator of research production throughout the world, but also the objective –in many cases- of this work.

Publishing an article not only gives the authors the opportunity to publicize their findings or opinions, but also constitutes the qualifying pattern of their research activity. Doing it in prestigious journals and being cited by other authors as many times as possible will increase your research recognition, and open the doors to new job or funding opportunities.
Three recently published articles once again bring the credibility of scientific publications to the fore, in different ways and in different contexts.

The first of them expresses the opinion of Randy Schekman, an American biologist who won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 20131. Despite having used prestigious journals with high impact factors to disseminate his research, some of which have made him worthy of such an important award, he now criticizes them, stating categorically the following:

“We all know what distorting incentives have done to finance and banking. The incentives my colleagues face are not huge bonuses, but the professional rewards that accompany publication in prestigious journals – chiefly Nature, Cell and Science… But the big journals’ reputations are only partly warranted. While they publish many outstanding papers, they do not publish only outstanding papers. Neither are they the only publishers of outstanding research.”

It also attacks the aforementioned impact factors, which, it affirms, are becoming an end in themselves, distorting the true objective that scientific production and dissemination should pursue.

It seems that economic criteria are behind these distortions: the demand regulated by potential readers seems to prevail, as the author insinuates, over the quality of the papers themselves. Selling more, in a more exclusive way and at the best price are not criteria only applicable to commercial transactions, but rather seem to contribute to the drift in the criteria of objectivity and quality that prevail in prestigious publications.

Schekman ends his article by stating his intention to no longer publish in “luxury journals”, which is what he calls the prestigious Science, Nature or Cell journals. The Nobel Prize is committed to publishing in open-access journals, which, through the Internet, are gaining ground over classic subscriptions.
But it is not just these elite publications that have been brought to the fore recently.

A second article, curiously published in Science2, attacks these other open-access scientific journals, to which Scheckman has referred. The author, John Bohannon, has put to the test the rigor of a good number of open-access journals (a total of 304) by deliberately writing a fraudulent article, riddled with gross errors, bordering on the grotesque, and sending it to the aforementioned journals for see what happened finally.

The result will have made more than one blush: 157 publications accepted the manuscript and 98 rejected it. The rest did not respond within the stipulated period.

The defects in the construction of the investigation were of such proportion that any editor who had read the article, without having to be an expert in the field, should not have hesitated a moment to reject it.

However, more than half of all the journals it was submitted to accepted it. Moreover, some of them asked the author to introduce small format modifications for its acceptance, without making any reference to the serious errors that the scientific elaboration of the research presented. Some raised objections to the reliability of the data: the author limited himself to making minor changes (introduction of figures or extension of some texts), without altering in any way the contents that were the object of suspicion, seeing, with surprise, that after resubmitting the manuscript it was accepted.

But not only open-access publications are exposed to fraudulent work. Also Nature, The Lancet or Science, the “luxury journals”, as Schekman defines them, have accepted and published papers with fraud, such as duplicities, falsifications or concealment of data3,4,5,6.

Finally, a third article extends the suspicion beyond the scientific publications themselves7. In this case, the affected party is the Internet search engine Google, which, through the tools Google Scholar Citations and Google Scholar Metrics, specialized in searching for and measuring the scientific impact of researchers and scientific journals, is also an attractive target for researchers that, with few scruples, can manipulate them to obtain quick notoriety in their research paper.

The paper that concerns us, published in the Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, and commented on in a Letter to the Editor in the prestigious journal Science8, highlights the ease with which citation data of articles, researchers and journals can be manipulated through a simple system available to anyone.

The experience has been carried out by researchers from the University of Granada Emilio Delgado López-Cózar, Nicolás Robinson-García and Daniel Torres-Salinas. This last technical manager of research at the FIMA (Foundation for Applied Medical Research) of the University of Navarra (University Life. University of Navarra, 10-XII-2013).

Basically, in a similar way to what was mentioned in the previous case, the authors have written a deliberately fraudulent article, which they have later divided into 6 other papers, plagued with citations (129) of other texts. Once in Google, the automatic indexing mechanism of the search engine did the rest of the work: the false authors cited by the signer of the fraudulent article – also with a false identity – observed, together with this, how their citations in Google Scholar increased considerably.

All the bibliometric indicators of the three authors increased notably and were also affected by increases in citations, 47 from researchers and 52 from journals.

The growth of the means of dissemination of scientific work, the increase in research production and the prominence that bibliometric indicators have acquired, facilitate the spread of fraud.

The ethical training of the researcher seems to be the true path towards honesty in scientific work. Only the truth in conduct can serve the truth in science.

Justo Aznar and Julio Tudela

Bioethics Observatory -Institute of Life Sciences

Catholic University of Valencia

 

1. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/dec/09/how-journals-nature-science-cell-damage-science. Accessed 31/01/2014

2. Bohannon J. Who´s Afraid of Peer Review?. Science 2013;342:60-5. Ii iihttp://www.sciencemag.org/content/342/6154/60.full  Accessed 31/01/2014

3. Brumfiel G. Physicist found guilty of misconduct. Nature 2002; doi10.1038/news020923-9.

4. Qiu J. Publish or perish in China. Nature 2010;463:142-2.

5. Wakefield AJ, Murch SH, Anthony A, Linnel J, Casson DM, Malik M et al. Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, on-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children. The Lancet 1998;351:637-41.

6. Beloqui A, Guazzaroni ME, Pazos F, Vieites JM, Godoy M, Golyshina OV et al. Retraction: Reactome array:  Forging a link between metabolome and Genome. Science 2010;330:912.

7. Delgado E, Robinson-García N, Torres-Salinas D. The Google Scholar Experiment: how to index false papers and manipulate bibliometric indicators.  Paper accepted for publication in the Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology. 2013;1-18

8. Delgado E, Robinson-García N, Torres-Salinas D. Science Communication: Flawed Citation Indexing. Science, 342(6163), 1169. doi:10.1126/science.342.6163.1169-b.

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