“Science is as human an enterprise as any enterprise,” says Dr Ivan Oransky, one of the website’s operators and executive editor of Reuters Health. “I don’t know that there are fewer sociopaths in science than in politics or corporate America. And there are the same pressures to cut corners, which is really how it all starts.”
Few science frauds are thought to go completely undetected. Two classes of witness usually know of it. The first are graduate students and post- doctoral researchers studying the same problem as the cheat. The second are very senior, sometimes rivals or retired, who can spot claims that are too good to be true.
For them, Retraction Watch and other web-based networks such as Science Fraud have created a new focus to challenge misconduct worldwide. While potential whistleblowers wanting careers once kept their concerns to themselves, and those of distinction spoke obliquely on old boy networks, today any anxieties can be furiously debated in post- publication open review.
One of the liveliest online debates is on allegations of misconduct by a medical research team that is being investigated by the authorities at Cardiff University.
Oransky says scientists are now venting their spleen in overwhelming quantities and languages — which leaves a dilemma for editors such as Godlee, trapped between what they know and what they can do.
The British Medical Journal more than most has campaigned for heightened integrity, but it is also the establishment’s voice.
“We have got progress, but there is still a lot of complacency,” she told me, revealing her concerns more sharply than in her editorial.
“The usual way of dealing with this is that it’s all between colleagues. But research misconduct is a serious matter. Time and money and people’s lives are at risk. I think scientific fraud should be a criminal offence.”
Brian Deer was named specialist reporter of the year in last year’s British Press Awards for his exposure of the Wakefield scandal
The ones who didn't get away
Dipak Das, 65 Heart surgeon; US; exposed 2012
Found guilty on 145 counts of fabrication and falsification, including in work on the possible health benefits of red wine.
Peter Francis Ophthalmic geneticist; British researcher in US; exposed 2012
Admitted making up results from experiments on rats that had never been carried out.
Marc Hauser, 52 Evolutionary biologist; US; exposed 2010
Harvard University said an internal investigation had found him guilty of eight counts of research misconduct involving published and unpublished studies.
Li Liansheng, 45 Mechanical engineer; China; exposed 2009
Fired by Xian Jiaotong University after fabrication and plagiarism was found in published research on compressors.
Raj Persaud, 49 Psychiatrist; Britain; exposed 2006
Plagiarised other researchers’ findings, generally about bizarre disorders, and published them in books and magazine articles.
Scott Reuben, 54 Anaesthetist; US; exposed 2008
Found to have fabricated at least 21 published clinical trials, giving favourable results for new generation painkillers. In many cases, the work simply was not done.
Jan Hendrink Schön, 42 Physicist; German researcher in US; exposed 2002
Found to have made up and falsified some 28 papers relating to semiconductors, published in multiple scientific journals.
Jon Sudbo, 51 Dentist; Norway; exposed 2006
Found to have fabricated numerous studies, including one on painkillers and cancer. Of 908 purported patients in his landmark work, 250 were discovered to have the same birthday.
Andrew Wakefield, 55 Gut surgeon; Britain; exposed 2004-11
Found to have rigged his research suggesting that the MMR vaccine caused regressive autism and enterocolitis. Children in his study were discovered to have neither.
Hwang Woo-Suk, 59 Veterinarian; South Korea; exposed 2006
Found to have faked research results on embryonic stem cells. Nine “cell lines”, supposedly from different sources, had identical DNA.