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Whither Honesty?

2011 was a "record-breaking year for retractions," says Retraction Watch's Ivan Oransky. The year also saw a new record for most retractions by one person — Japanese anesthesiologist Yoshitaka Fujii with 172 retracted papers. In a live chat hosted by Science reporter Martin Enserink, Oransky and University of Virginia psychologist Brian Nosek discussed whether the rise in retractions means that there's an honesty problem in science.

Although the number of retractions is certainly up, it's hard to tell if that means fraud is on the rise, Oransky said during the live chat. There is some evidence to suggest that science is developing a problem, but it's sometimes hard to tell the cause of the retractions because retraction notices are not transparent, he added.

"What is clear is that fraud occurs in all fields because it arises because of human motivations and human behaviors," Nosek said. "Scientists are human (except perhaps astrobiologists) and they are sensitive to incentives to publish and advance their careers. Fraud is an extreme form of that."

In response to an audience member who asked what some possible solutions might be, Oransky said one thing that could help would be if all scientists were forced to publish the raw data underlying their conclusions, while Nosek added that wider access to the data could also help other researchers with their efforts to replicate the work of others.

But Nosek also said he believes all is not lost for science. "Many interpret these recent, dramatic cases of fraud as negative signals of things to come. I think the opposite. We are getting a handle on why the behavior occurs, how our systems encourage it, our ability to detect it, and soon — I hope — solutions to solve it," he added.

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