A study published in eLIFE on August 14, 2014, looked at data pertaining to some papers published between 1992 and 2012 that the Office of Research Integrity had determined contained research misconduct. From the abstract:
Data relating to retracted manuscripts and authors found by the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) to have committed misconduct were reviewed from public databases. Attributable costs of retracted manuscripts, and publication output and funding of researchers found to have committed misconduct were determined. We found that papers retracted due to misconduct accounted for approximately $58 million in direct funding by the NIH between 1992 and 2012, less than 1% of the NIH budget over this period. Each of these articles accounted for a mean of $392,582 in direct costs (SD $423,256). Researchers experienced a median 91.8% decrease in publication output and large declines in funding after censure by the ORI.
While the number of retractions worldwide is on the rise – also because the numbers of papers being published and of journals are on the rise – the study addresses a subset of these papers and only those drawn up by researchers who received funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Among them, there is no discernible trend in terms of impact factors and attributable losses. In the chart below, the size of each datapoint corresponds to the direct attributable loss and its color, to the impact factor of the journal that published the paper.
However, is the time to retraction dropping?
The maximum time to retraction has been on the decline since 1997. However, on average, the time to retraction is still fluctuating, influenced as it is by the number of papers retracted and the nature of misconduct.
No matter the time to retraction or the impact factors of the journals, most scientists experience a significant difference in funding before and after the ORI report comes through, as the chart below shows, sorted by quanta of funds. The right axis displays total funding pre-ORI and the left, total funding post-ORI.
As the study’s authors summarize in their abstract: “Researchers experienced a median 91.8% decrease in publication output and large declines in funding after censure by the ORI,” while total funding toward all implicated researchers went from $131 million to $74.5 million.
There could be some correlation between the type of misconduct and decline in funding, but there’s not enough data to determine that. Nonetheless, there are eight instances in 1992-2012 when the amount of funding increased after the ORI report, of which the lowest rise as such as is seen for John Ho, who committed fraud, and the highest for Alan Landay, implicated for plagiarism, a ‘lesser’ charge.
The personal consequences for individuals found to have committed research misconduct are considerable. When a researcher is found by the ORI to have committed misconduct, the outcome typically involves a voluntary agreement in which the scientist agrees not to contract with the United States government for a period of time ranging from a few years to, in rare cases, a lifetime. Recent studies of faculty and postdoctoral fellows indicate that research productivity declines after censure by the ORI, sometimes to zero, but that many of those who commit misconduct are able to find new jobs within academia (Redman and Merz, 2008, 2013). Our study has found similar results. Censure by the ORI usually results in a severe decrease in productivity, in many cases causing a permanent cessation of publication. However the exceptions are instructive.
Retraction Watch reported the findings with especial focus on the cost of research misconduct. They spoke to Daniele Fanelli, one part of whose quote is notable – albeit no less than the rest.
The question of collateral damage, by which I mean the added costs caused by other research being misled, is controversial. It still has to be conclusively shown, in other words, that much research actually goes wasted directly because of fabricated findings. Waste is everywhere in science, but the role played by frauds in generating it is far from established and is likely to be minor.
Stern, A.M., Casadevall, A., Steen, R.G. and Fang, F.C., Financial costs and personal consequences of research misconduct resulting in retracted publications, eLIFE. August 14, 2014;3:e02956.