Built on failure: The value of what we cant comprehend

Retractions of scientific papers have soared in the past decade—up tenfold, according to a 2011 report in the journal Nature. At first glance, that fact might be taken as a sign of an increase in conscience among scientists who have discovered errors and omissions in previous work. Unfortunately, that is not the case. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in September 2012 concluded that misconduct, not error, was the reason for the majority of the retractions.

Furthermore, the uncovering of misconduct was due not to heightened editorial vigilance on the part of the scientific publications but to the prevalence of computer software that can detect data manipulation, plagiarism, and faked images. The study also showed that the problem is global.

Several factors are fueling malfeasance. The first is extreme competition for fewer jobs and diminishing grant money, leading to huge pressures on desperate scientists (especially young ones) to publish as fast and as often as possible. If they don’t, they may end up being forced out of the profession. One prominent scientist has described it as a winner-take-all culture that encourages cheating.