Why Are Scientific Retractions Increasing?

Jonah Lehrer

In the WSJ, Gautam Naik reports on a troubling surge in scientific retractions:

Since 2001, while the number of papers published in research journals has risen 44%, the number retracted has leapt more than 15-fold, data compiled for The Wall Street Journal by Thomson Reuters reveal.

Just 22 retraction notices appeared in 2001, but 139 in 2006 and 339 last year. Through seven months of this year, there have been 210, according to Thomson Reuters Web of Science, an index of 11,600 peer-reviewed journals world-wide.

What’s driving this dramatic spike? I don’t think anyone really knows. The least likely explanation is that scientists have suddenly become less scrupulous and honest. Instead, I think the trend is almost certainly being driven by a number of unrelated factors, including a newfound willingness by journals to issue retractions, increased scrutiny from the blogosphere and the ever escalating complexity of scientific research, which makes innocent mistakes more likely. (According to one analysis, 73.5 percent of retractions were due to error, not fraud.)

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