February 20, 2024

Crisis in research: if Harvard isn’t safe from fraud, who is? 

The president of Harvard, Claudine Gay, was forced to step down last month because of allegations of plagiarism. Not long after, Harvard’s DEI czar, Sherri Ann Charleston, was also accused of plagiarism. A dark cloud hangs over Harvard’s reputation for academic excellence.

Still worse for Harvard– for Gay and Charleston were administrators – are more allegations, this time in medicine and science. Neuroscientist Khalid Shah, a neurosurgeon at Harvard teaching hospital Brigham and Women’s Hospital, has been accused of manipulating data. The Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston has initiated six retractions to papers and 31 others are being corrected. Four leading researchers have been implicated.

Plagiarism, data manipulation, and research fraud are distinct but related modes of academic misconduct. If it happens at Harvard, the world’s most prestigious university, are there problems elsewhere?

Yes, according to a survey conducted by Nature. It found that 10,000 articles – a record! —  had been retracted in 2023. The countries with the largest number of authors with retracted articles were Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Russia and China. “The retraction rate — the proportion of papers published in any given year that go on to be retracted — has more than trebled in the past decade. In 2022, it exceeded 0.2%,” says Nature.

“The situation has become appalling,” Professor Dorothy Bishop, of Oxford University, told The Guardian. “The level of publishing of fraudulent papers is creating serious problems for science. In many fields it is becoming difficult to build up a cumulative approach to a subject, because we lack a solid foundation of trustworthy findings. And it’s getting worse and worse.”

Other scientists agreed. “If, as a scientist, I want to check all the papers about a particular drug that might target cancers or stroke cases, it is very hard for me to avoid those that are fabricated,” said Professor Malcolm MacLeod of Edinburgh University. “Scientific knowledge is being polluted by made-up material. We are facing a crisis.”