Does the lure of a high impact factor encourage scientific fraud? mBio’s Editor in Chief and the EIC of Infection and Immunity (IAI) have found a strong positive correlation between a journal’s impact factor and the number of retractions issued in the past 10 years. They propose a number of reasons for this relationship and point out that the disproportionate pay-offs of publishing in a high impact journal may be partly to blame.
In their article published ahead of print in IAI this week, Arturo Casadevall and Ferric Fang examined retractions in 17 journals between 2001 and 2010 and plotted the retraction index against the impact factor of the journal (see chart at right). Considering the far-from-random correlation they uncovered, Casadevall and Fang point say the scientific publication process may well have some systematic aspects that can impact retraction rates.
For some of the underlying reasons, first think about why scientists are so eager to publish in high-impact journals: Casadevall and Fang say the benefits of publishing in a top-tier journal are plenty and may outweigh the importance of the work a given study describes. The promise of improved job opportunities, grant success, peer recognition and honorific rewards can encourage some authors to play fast and loose with study design, data presentation, analysis, and interpretation – which may or may not lead to a retraction down the road. Out-and-out fraud is another response to this temptation. Either way, I don’t think these possibilities say anything good about the reward system in science.
But Casadevall and Fang point out another possible force that could be at work here: reader scrutiny. Articles in top journals get a lot of attention and readers are more likely to point out study weaknesses to authors and editors than they would be if the study were published in a less visible place. This variety of peer-review is a good thing, although one could argue that such weaknesses should be caught during the review process and not after publication.
Regardless of the reasons, Casadevall and Fang think we may only see the tip of the iceberg of articles that ought to be retracted, considering the forbidding stigma attached to retracting a scholarly article and the difficulties of identifying and rooting out misconduct.
What do you think? Do readers and others catch most of the articles that ought to be retracted or is there a hidden sea-mount of bad papers out there? Do you think the rewards of publishing in a high-impact journal encourage risky behavior and fraud?