Hardly a year goes by without a scandal involving an erroneous research publication. The standard scenario goes like this: a young researcher publishes a breakthrough paper in an academic journal; the researcher is hailed as a rising star; other researchers attempt to reproduce the work and fail to do so; an investigation into the original paper reveals it to contain fabricated data. The front page scandals are only the tip of the iceberg: there are plenty of erroneous papers out there that attract less attention and lie quietly in the literature for years until some unlucky researcher tries to repeat the work. Why are erroneous papers published?
There has always been a strong incentive to publish research papers in order to fatten a resume to impress decision makers when it is time for tenure or promotions. This pressure is increasing. Even educators at schools that focus on teaching are being put under pressure to publish original research, although with no letup in the teaching workload and with few research tools available. Without publications in respected journals, a researcher may have no chance for tenure (publish or perish). No wonder some researchers are willing to cut corners and rush papers into print.
Publication submissions are steadily increasing. Many journals receive so many that they are hard pressed to review them adequately in a timely fashion. Once again there is a temptation to cut corners, assign reviews to less qualified individuals or skimp on the process to hurry it along.
Publishing in an open access journals has much to recommend it. However, their business model requires a researcher to pay thousands of dollars in order to publish. Many open access journals are well reviewed and well respected, but some are paper mills that will publish any paper so long as it is accompanied by a hefty fee: the more papers they publish, the more money they make.
A few researchers are driven to fabricate data by psychological forces that make no sense. Why would an intelligent person make up data for a blockbuster paper? They are sure to be caught: the more dramatic the result, the more labs will try to reproduce it. These people seem to be driven by the same deep-seated forces that motivate hoaxsters and occasionally shoplifters and traitors.
I was once victimized by an erroneous paper, one that claimed the facile synthesis of a compound that I hoped to use as a starting material. After many unsuccessful attempts to reproduce the synthesis I began to smell a rat. Then a paper came out in which other researchers tried the prep and also reported failing to repeat it. It took almost ten years for this error to be exposed.
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