Peril In 21st-Century Scientific Publishing - Fake News

A storm is brewing over the horizon for scientific publishing, not yet fully in sight, yet not far away. This storm threatens fundamental principles that underlie scientific discourse and discovery. The threat is partially and inadvertently masked by high ideals and admirable goals currently promoted in the scientific community.

The threat is fake news. In science, fake news comes in the form of false information masquerading as scientific fact. Science relies on accurate reporting of scientific discovery, both to support progress in understanding of science and to enable verification of the results by further testing. The masquerade may take the form of honest mistakes or actual scientific fraud and misconduct. The incidence of true fraud currently is likely low, but the rapidly expanding scientific literature guarantees that the absolute number of cases of fraud will also rapidly expand. Changes in the structure of dissemination of the results of scientific research are also likely to facilitate an evermore expanding promulgation of false information. Each of these forces brings the storm closer and endangers our collective scientific advancement and future discoveries critical to the survival of humankind.

The incidence of the fabrication of data and other forms of scientific fraud are fortunately low. Recent estimates from self-reports suggest that only about 2% of scientists engage in this kind of scientific misconduct. However, that should not be as comforting as it sounds. In the same study, the rate at which scientists observe scientific misconduct in others is reported to be much higher, perhaps as much as 10 times higher. This is high enough to raise storm flags.

One of the modes of self-correction in scientific publishing is to retract papers with errors, either by authors voluntarily reporting an error in a publication or a forced retraction as a result of an investigation of scientific misconduct. The number of retractions of scientific papers from the literature has risen dramatically in recent years risen dramatically in recent years. One should be cautious of interpreting these findings since there are both an expanding literature base as well as increased vigilance by the federal government and universities to identify and ameliorate fraud.

The persistence of errors or fraud in scientific publishing is disturbing. In a recent analysis of scientific papers that had been retracted in the years 1997 - 2009, the citations of these papers did not decrease. Citations are referrals by scientists in subsequent papers to that previous work. Presumably, if a paper was retracted, one would like to see subsequent referrals to that paper rapidly diminish. That does not appear to happen. The results of that persistence can be devastating. In one well-known case, a paper that falsely suggested autism was caused by certain vaccinations led to dramatic reductions in vaccination and likely deaths, even after retraction of the paper.

Whether the rate of publication of false papers is increasing or decreasing may not be known, but even if it is remaining steady, it portends great peril in the future. That is because the number of scientific publications is increasing dramatically, year over year. Therefore even if the rate of fraud is only 2%, the actual number of fraudulent papers being published each year is also dramatically increasing.

As a result of the increase in the number of papers that scientists want to publish, there is a worldwide increase in the number of scientific journals in which to publish those papers . That is raising a new peril. The pressure to publish to enhance reputations, to succeed in grant applications (to support individual scientist's research programs), and to rise in the ranks of the profession, can be corrosive. Some new journals that enter the market are focused on profits and not on scientific integrity. The professional review and editing process that journal articles normally must survive to be published is rigorous and greatly reduces the incidence of false reporting. However it is an expensive process and not all publishers adhere to high standards. This increases the chances of fake news entering publically available archives.

More recently, under the laudable mandate of transparency and public availability, researchers are now being encouraged to deposit their papers in digital archives maintained by third parties, such as universities, so that their results are freely available. The argument is made that such deposits should not preclude publication in standard journals with their extensive review and editing roles. Much can be said in support of such goals.

However, there is a threat that is masked by those admirable goals. Not only do readers want to access scientific papers without cost, but authors want to publish without costs. Why not simply write papers and deposit them into "free" (some entity has to pay for the costs of the repository) archives? Now the only hindrance to "publishing" fake news is the strength of the ethics of the writer. Review functions are absent. While some would say let the marketplace determine the integrity of the work, the persistence of false results even with the current set of checks and balances is unacceptable. It would only get worse if those checks and balances were removed.

This is not a doomsday pronouncement, but a storm warning. Unless the scientific community enforces the highest standards of scientific integrity, scientific research could become engulfed by fake news, as some other parts of the human endeavor have already experienced. That demands judgment from today's scientists and intensive training for tomorrow's scientists.