Laboratory coats hang up in a classroom, Jan. 27, 2015. 
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Study casts harsh light on scientists accused of bogus work

Updated

It was the work of a rock-star researcher, on a subject of searing front-page importance: the political fight to legalize gay marriage. Now, after the journal Science retracted the much-publicized paper, Princeton has pulled the author’s job as an incoming assistant professor. 

But while Michael LaCour has been called one of the biggest scientific fakes in recent memory, where does his case rank on the all-time leaderboard of hijinks, lies and academic chicanery? Well, it doesn’t rank at all, according to a new study of the 30 most prolific accused frauds in the history of higher education.

The list is a product of Retraction Watch, a popular clearinghouse of bad science. Last year, the site’s founders, Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus, won a $400,000 MacArthur Foundation grant to create the first complete database of retracted scientific research.

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Their “leaderboard” is a mark of progress toward the completion of that database: a rundown of the authors whose work has been been frequently clawed back and withdrawn from the scientific record. The most common reason for a retraction is misconduct, not error. And while the list is “unofficial” until Retraction Watch finishes its database, it’s a reminder that science—after changing the world—may need to change itself.

“People need to publish in big journals in order to get tenure,” Oransky told msnbc. “But in order to get published you need a sexy, kind of cool new finding, and until that incentive system changes, it’s hard to see how we’re going to get at this problem.”

The current Retraction Watch record holder is Yoshitaka Fujii, a Japanese anesthesiologist who is accused of fabricating dozens of studies over a nearly two decade career. His work was largely based on whimsy and imagination, according to a team of independent researchers who reviewed it in 2012.

“It is as if someone sat at a desk and wrote a novel about a research idea,” they concluded.

So far, 183 of Fujii’s articles have made a post-publication walk of shame. That makes him the Babe Ruth of scientific fraud: more than doubling and tripling the output of his closest accused competitors on the leaderboard, Joachim Boldt and Peter Chen.

Boldt was one of the world’s most respected anesthesiologists. Then, in 2011, colleagues accused him of forging as many as 90 studies—89 of which have since been retracted, according to the count by Oransky and Marcus. Now he’s “the great pretender,” in the words of the British Medical Journal.

Others call him the biggest fraud in the United Kingdom since Andrew Wakefield, the researcher whose work misled the world about the link between autism and childhood vaccine. That echoing lie helped turn actress Jenny McCarthy into an activist and measles into a rising problem. But Boldt is also accused of crossing a criminal line, exposing millions of patients to a painkilling drug supported by bogus studies. 

Peter Chen is a distant third on the list, with 60 retractions to his name. His case, however, is one of the most bizarre. Last year, the unassuming Taiwanese acoustics expert was accused of playing kingpin to “a peer review and citation ring,” as the publisher described it.

The Journal of Vibration and Control retracted all 60 of Chen’s papers in a single swoop, after an investigation showed that he was using aliases and burner email addresses to game the profession’s vaunted peer review process. On at least one occasion, Chen “peer reviewed” his own paper under a fake name, according to an announcement by the publisher.

“This one deserves a ‘wow,’” Retraction Watch wrote at the time.

The list goes on and on, scrutinizing researchers from dozens of fields and different nationalities. The high crimes and misdemeanors include plagiarism, data manipulation, double publishing, sock-puppetry and old-fashioned graft. One Czech biochemist was caught on camera breaking into a lab to fake his results.

The only thing missing is women: all but three of the top 30 are men, which, as Oransky and Marcus point out, “agrees with the general findings of a 2013 paper suggesting that men are more likely to commit fraud.”

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While these are extreme examples, bad science is evidently on the rise, driven up by declines in resources and positions, fierce competition for what’s left and a system ill-equipped to police itself. One recent study found a tenfold rise in retractions in a matter of years.

All of which brings us back to the case of Michael LaCour, the young researcher accused of fabricating the data in his celebrated—and now retracted—study of attitudes toward gay marriage. In addition to data fraud, which LaCour disputes, he appears to have lied on his curriculum vitae, exaggerating grants and teaching awards.

But these days, with just a single retraction to his name, LaCour’s case is memorable—but not yet statistically significant. “In order to break the top 10 in 2015 you need to have pretty much 30 retractions,” Oransky said. “If we did this 10 years ago, getting 10 retractions would have been pretty impressive.” 

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Study casts harsh light on scientists accused of bogus work

Updated