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Fraud in scientific research: It happens, and cases are on the rise

Of 2,000 retractions of published scientific papers since 1977, 866 were because of fraud, a new study finds. Another 201 were plagiarized. But it's hard to know if more scientists are cheating, or if detection is simply better.

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In this May 2010 file photo, Andrew Wakefield speaks in Chicago. Britain's General Medical Council stripped Wakefield of his status as a 'registered medical practitioner' following claims that he committed scientific misconduct.

Charles Rex Arbogas/AP/File

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More published research papers – the currency of a career in science – have been retracted during the past 35 years because of fraud and plagiarism than for any other combination of reasons, according to a new study.

Particularly troubling, the researchers say, has been a 10-fold increase in the number of retractions attributed to fraud or suspected fraud.

Compared with the scale of the global scientific enterprise, the numbers are tiny. The research team's sample of 25 million research papers – formal descriptions of experiments and their results – published since the 1940s turned up slightly more than 2,000 instances of retractions since the first one in the sample was issued in 1977. Of those, 886 were yanked because of fraud, and 201 were retracted because of plagiarism. The remainder were retracted either because of mistakes or because the same paper was published twice.

The retractions involved papers from 56 countries, with some 75 percent of the fraud-related papers stemming from labs in the US, Germany, Japan, and China. The US led the pack.

It's unclear whether the increase in fraud-related retractions reflect an uptick in the number of shady scientists or better detection, even if it comes after the journals publishing the papers have hit the streets.

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