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Science Fraud! Peer Review IS Vulnerable

Jul 11, 2014 04:59 PM EDT

Investigators have recently exposed a ring of fraudulent reviews, resulting in the retraction of a whopping 60 papers from a little-known journal. However, these retractions actually occur more than you'd think, even in big named journals.

The recent retraction in question occurred in the Journal of Vibration and Control and concerns 60 papers published over the last four years. The retractions were made last Tuesday following the conclusion of an investigation launched by SAGE Publications.

"This one deserves a 'wow'," investigative journalists Adam Marcus and Ivan Oransky wrote in their blog Retraction Watch after initially discovering the debacle.

It is arguably the largest mass retraction ever seen in the reputable science community, and calls the reliability of the peer-reviewed process into question.

However, it certainly isn't the first mass retraction to occur. In 2011, the journal Pharmaceutical Biology released a statement of retraction detailing how Hyung-In Moon had been secretly reviewing his own work through fake and hijacked identities, at least until he was caught in the act. This resulted in a mass retraction of 30 papers.

Michael B. Eisen, a biologist and a critic of the peer-review system, told The New York Times that in many countries like South Korea and Taiwan, academic institutions appear to measure the value of a researcher not on the quality of their work, but on the number of published papers they have co-authored.

"That creates room for various forms of shenanigans," he said. "It doesn't surprise me that much that something like this happens."

Small niche journals like the Journal of Vibration and Control are not the only ones being fooled by dishonest researchers, either.

The extremely well-known and reputable journal Nature wound up retracting two articles around the start of last April after it was revealed that Haruko Obokata, a RIKEN Institute researcher, had misrepresented some of her data and altered pictures associated with "groundbreaking" stem cell research.

The research in question concerned stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP) stem cells - perfect embryonic-like cells that could reportedly be made by simply bathing any mature cells in a semi-acidic solution.

According to Obokata's initial study, she and her RIKEN team had successfully reproduced results first accomplished by Charles Vicanti, who had originally stumbled upon the STAP process while conducting unrelated work. However, soon experts began to notice discrepancies between Vicanti's process and the RIKEN team's process. Apparent mistakes also were called into question, with Teruhiko Wakayama, a co-author of the study, making calls to retract the work.

In the end, an internal investigation resulted in RIKEN retracting both papers, finding Obokata guilty of two instances of intentional misconduct, and likewise showing that even the intensive review process of Nature was not immune to dishonesty.

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