Increased detection has played a role, notes Ferric Fang, professor of laboratory medicine and microbiology at the University of Washington in Seattle and the study's lead author. The study, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), notes that the upswing began in 1989, after Congress approved whistleblower-protection legislation and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) set up a body to oversee the integrity of research the agency has funded.
Moreover, he says, the team's analysis showed that the journals considered to be the most prestigious retracted tainted papers faster than did more-obscure journals, pointing to the close read these journals get by other researchers.
"But you also have the strong impression, in looking at some of these massive instances of fraud over many years, that ... retractions are more common because retractable offenses are more common," Dr. Fang says.
"We have this idea that science is self-correcting, and there's certainly some truth to that," he says, noting that if results can't be replicated by other researchers, if a conclusion is wrong, it will be identified.
"But there's other stuff out there that doesn't come to wrong conclusions. It's just based on fraudulent data. It's in an area that isn't being intensively investigated by others, or people don't confirm those findings but they're not really sure why," he adds, noting that these are the results that tend to hang around to potentially influence future experiments.
The vast majority of the papers retracted for misconduct dealt with biomedical or life-science research. Some, though, involved fields not directly related to life science – fields such as semiconductor research and psychology.