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Scientific Fraud— Questioning the credibility of global research?

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Saadeqa Khan
Saadeqa Khan
Saadeqa Khan is the founder, CEO, & Editor-in-Chief of Scientia Pakistan. She's a member of the Oxford Climate Journalism Network (Second Cohort) and NASW. Saadeqa is a fellow of NPF Washington, The Falling Walls Foundation, and the Science Journalism Forum. Saadeqa has won several international journalism grants and awards for her reports.

According to the International Directory of Open Science Journals, more than 9 million scientific papers were published in 2023. Statistics show that the global scholarly journal publishing market was set to grow by 1.95 billion dollars in 2023; by 2027, it is expected to rise to 3.1 billion dollars.

Several developed countries allocate special funds for research in their annual budget, due to which scientific research has accelerated in recent years. However, an international scandal reveals that thousands of bogus research papers are being published in science journals, and the situation worsens yearly. 

Meanwhile, plagiarism in peer review remained surprisingly overlooked despite a notable rise in such cases in recent years. According to a study published in Nature, many published scientific papers worldwide are reviewed and retracted yearly, but in 2023, more than ten thousand such papers were retracted.

Another study published in Springer revealed that an in-depth analysis of fifty suspected scientific papers had detected plagiarised content. 

The debate sparked after the Standford University Scandal!

In July 2023, a global debate kick-started when Marc Tessier-Lavigne [The then] President of Standford Univeristy announced his resignation after an independent review of his research. The investigations found significant flaws in the studies he supervised a decade ago. 

Although Tessier Lavigne was cleared of accusations of scientific fraud and misconduct, the review said his work had several problems and fell below customary standards of scientific rigor.

Tessier-Lavigne said“I expect there may be an ongoing discussion about the report and its conclusions, at least in the near term, which could lead to debate about my ability to lead the university into the new academic year.”

Theo Baker, the investigative editor of the Stanford University newspaper “Stanford Daily,” was awarded the “George Polk Journalism Award” for exposing this mishandling in scientific papers. After the revelation of this scandal, the voices against fraud in scientific publications got another spark worldwide. 

AI helps Scientists to trick reviewers 

Richard Van Noorden, editor of Nature, says that scientific papers can be manipulated in several ways. For example, they create fake research data with the help of artificial intelligence and chatbots, specifically ChatGPT, taking data from Google, duplicating images and troubled phrases, etc. 

He further points out that in peer review fraud, scientists help each other pass research data without analysis. Most of such papers have text or content stolen from other research papers. Several editors and journals manipulated the metadata of accepted papers to increase citations of specific scholars and journals.

While talking to the Guardian, Professor Dorothy Bishop of Oxford University says that “the extent of fraudulent papers publication is creating serious problems for science. Building a cumulative approach to a subject in many fields is becoming arduous because we lack a solid foundation of trustworthy findings.”

“The startling rise in the publication of sham science papers has its roots in China, where young doctors and scientists seeking promotion must have published scientific papers. This demand has given rise to scientific fraud, and shadow organizations known as “paper mills” now supply fabricated papers for journal publication.”

“The practice then spread to India, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, eastern Europe, and several other countries with paper mills selling fabricated papers to science journals. There is a growing demand for such papers as young ­scientists are more eager to boost their careers in international universities by claiming false research experience.”

“Journal editors have sometimes been bribed to accept articles, while paper mills have established their agents as guest editors who allow reams of ­falsified work to be published”, she argued. 

"It is good news that more than ten thousand research papers were retracted in 2023. This comes after a big year debating on this topic and the topic of finding fraudulent practices."
It is good news that more than ten thousand research papers were retracted in 2023. This comes after a big year debating on this topic and the topic of finding fraudulent practices.” Photo, Evolution News

Spotting fraudulent scientific papers!

Even scientific research cannot spare from the increasing influence of digital media worldwide. A new trend in scientific communities is to send out a press release to media outlets before publishing their research papers. In these press releases, the researchers over-exaggerate as a breakthrough research, but later, it turns out to be bogus. 

Elisabeth Bik, a Science Integrity consultant — says that the growing trend of fake scientific research is a cause for serious concern for scientists and researchers worldwide. To address this problem, some scientists have formed non-profit groups revealing such bogus research. There are also websites like “PeerPub” and “Retraction Watch“—these sites have complete data of all the retracted science papers. 

Lonni Besançon, a researcher at Columbia University, expresses her joy and says— “It is good news that more than ten thousand research papers were retracted in 2023. This comes after a big year debating on this topic and the topic of finding fraudulent practices.”

“Of course, some researchers like me may always see the glass half empty — and I would still argue that probably many more papers should have been retracted and that, as I have lamented several times, the process of correcting the scientific literature is too slow, too opaque, and too bureaucratic. While at the same time not protecting, funding, or rewarding the hardworking sleuth behind the work.”

“Most of the sleuthing work takes place despite, rather than thanks to, the present publication and editorial system. She argues that the data or metadata to facilitate investigations is often not published or available”.

Mikolaj Piniewski, the study’s lead author published in the Springer, is affiliated with the Warsaw University of Life Sciences. He explains that his team used AI to highlight manipulation in 50 research papers. AI can detect patterns in papers that should not be there in principle and identify plagiarized content within the paper and original sources.

He further elucidates that his team of researchers asked the authors of the fifty suspected papers to publish their complete data. Later on, an Excel sheet of data was analyzed with the help of AI. The analysis found that most data had been repeatedly copied, pasted, and manipulated.

In December 2023, a Nature analysis revealed that among large research-producing nations, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Russia, and China have had the highest retraction rates over the past decades.
In December 2023, a Nature analysis revealed that among large research-producing nations, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Russia, and China have had the highest retraction rates over the past decades. Photo Prof Graham kendall

The Nerve-Breaking situation for Pakistan!

In December 2023, a Nature analysis revealed that among large research-producing nations, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Russia, and China have had the highest retraction rates over the past decades. Pakistan stands as the second nation with the highest research retraction rate worldwide. 

 Dr. Nayyar Alam, a senior researcher and geologist, expresses his concern and says, Publishing scientific papers is significant for students and scientists. Many international universities and research institutions have for admission and the progress of scientists that includes several published research papers in reputed science journals.”

Moreover, he points out the main reasons for this downfall in scientific research— firstly, a shortage of international-level research in Pakistan’s universities is due to insufficient budget. The Higher Education Commission of Pakistan is running short of funds to sponsor research projects. At the same time, our laboratories are deficient in modern equipment and facilities. 

A third reason is the absence of science writing skills in English. Our students can hardly write science essays due to mere writing training in academic institutions. The students and researchers prefer fake resources like paper mills to get admission to international universities. These papers are retracted after some time, and the situation is quite disturbing to hardworking researchers. 

Like several other fields of life, corruption is creeping into the global scholarly journal publishing market. Ten of thousands of students and scientists are building their careers on the back of this tidal wave of fraudulent papers. But every now and then— they have to face the harsh reality of life, as the world is now more aware of such false practices. 

Several efforts are underway to ensure the highest research standards worldwide. Organizations sponsoring or funding research demand scientists publish all of their data to be thoroughly scrutinized. Science journals that publish new studies have already started screening suspected data— everyone involved in the process, including funding, production, and publication, is on ALERT now!

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