A special challenge for science writers covering research today arises from science’s growing credibility problem. It stems from the cumulative effect of errors and exaggerations that has fueled a recent rise in retractions, misconduct, and fraud among peer-reviewed researchers.For reporters covering major scientific developments – from the search for alien life and genomics, to particle physics, climate change and cancer — it can be difficult to distinguish error from fraud, sloppiness from deception, eagerness from greed or, increasingly, scientific conviction from partisan passion. Findings in fields from climate change to vaccines can also be deceptively cherry-picked in service of a political cause.
Science takes pride in being self-correcting. But is it? Consider:
• Scientific retractions are on the rise: There are just 44% more papers published per year now compared to 10 years ago, and yet 10 times as many retractions annually.
• Replication is becoming more and more rare: Drug companies are starting to realize that the compounds they once hoped to turn into blockbusters may do nothing resembling what the original papers describing them said they would.
• Recent independent reviews of hundreds of widely-reported peer-reviewed studies of genetics, cancer, dental and heart disease experiments revealed that their findings were seriously flawed or used inappropriate methods; yet few have been corrected or retracted.
Some say all of this is evidence of “dysfunction” thanks to shrinking science budgets. But perhaps we’re just seeing the effects of more eyeballs on papers, including plagiarism detection software. In other words, maybe there’s always been this much misconduct in science. Either way, public trust in science may begin to fray. What forces are at work and how can science writers take account of them in their coverage?
We will examine the trends in retractions and reproducibility, and the challenge it poses for reporters, offer ways to increase transparency, and improve peer review and other aspects of the scientific process.
Richard van Noorden