Here’s a personal experience with fraudulent scientific literature, as reported in Nature:
In 2015, I discovered several papers had been written about a gene that I and my colleagues first reported in 1998. All were by different authors based in China, but contained shared and strange irregularities. They also used highly similar language and figures. I think the papers came from third parties working for profit, fueled by the pressure on authors to meet unrealistic publication expectations. . .
The author, Jennifer Byrne at Sydney, and a colleague from France, Cyril Labbé, went on to develop software tools to spot this sort of thing more easily. But as this latest article shows, finding this kind of work is one thing; getting authors and journals to do anything about it another. They wrote to 48 authors after doing their first run through the literature, asking them to explain problematic results, and not a single one responded. So far, there have been 17 retractions, but not one of these has led to any sort of investigation into the research practices involved – the authors have relied on “Whoops, our mistake” as the explanation, apparently.
The problem is that working in this area can get you a reputation. People are uncomfortable talking about research fraud, for one thing, and the fact that many of the papers committing it are scattered through obscure low-impact journals makes it easier to dismiss as something unworthy of attention. And as Byrne says, “It is even more uncomfortable to think about organized fraud that is so frequently associated with one country.”
Indeed. It will be very interesting to see if the recent efforts by the Chinese government to crack down on shifty research and publication strategies will have an effect. The latest announcements on the system include public naming of those found guilty of misconduct and punishment that not only includes research funding and promotions, but can extend to things like ability to get personal loans or jobs outside of academia. It’s not like there isn’t fraud coming from other countries – there sure is – but the sheer volume of it from Chinese sources is a clear problem, and one that the authorities have apparently recognized. There’s a possibility that this (as with many another political initiative in countries around the world) could turn out to be window dressing, a way to look make it look like something is being done. But the Chinese government has – to put it lightly – demonstrated in the past that it has the willingness to follow up with severe measures if it really perceives a threat.
The fundamental problems, though, are the incentives that exist for starting and running journals that look the other way on this stuff, and for researchers to devote time, money, and effort to filling up the literature with swill. As long as there are rewards that can be obtained by fraud, people will commit fraud. I’d rather not have a corpus of scientific literature that has to be worked on just to clean the lies out of it, but that’s what we have now, and it’ll get worse.