Science has the power to improve health, strengthen economies and shed light on the unknown throughout the universe. Most scientists pursue research honestly and with noble aims. But a small and growing number of research papers are being retracted by journals for a myriad of reasons, including falsified evidence, conflicts of interest and plagiarism, specialists in science fraud say.
Research from China is one of the biggest offenders. A new data analysis by Al-Fanar Media, however, shows the problem is also widespread in the Arab region. Egypt and Saudi Arabia, two of the Arab countries with the highest numbers of published scientific articles, have some of the region’s highest rates of retraction. Egypt’s retraction rate is more than twice that of the United States and almost three times that of the United Kingdom.
“Bad science has an impact,” says Ivan Oransky, a journalist and co-founder of Retraction Watch, a blog that has also created a public database that catalogues retracted research papers. “It has an effect in terms of people in clinical trials with fraudulent results, but it also leads to mistrust of science more generally.”
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Retractions, and more importantly, knowing about them is a crucial part of the advancement of science, argues Oransky. Unless researchers or journal editors publicly withdraw or correct false results, inaccurate scientific conclusions can contaminate the wider body of quality research, he says.
Research Misconduct Can Lead to Retractions
Journal editors or authors can formally withdraw an article and its findings for a number of reasons, some of which include misconduct in research. The researcher may have faked data, parts of the article could have been plagiarized or other circumstances could have called the results into question.
“The reason I care about retractions is because while it may be an imperfect indicator, it’s one way to tell the correction of science actually happens,” says Oransky.
Using the Retraction Watch database, Al-Fanar Media was able to determine the number of retracted research papers for each country of the Arab League since 1996. Al-Fanar Media then compared the number of retractions to the number of papers published in each country in the same time period using the Scimago Journal & Country Rank database. This made it possible to calculate the percentage of a country’s research that has been retracted from 1996 to 2018.
Globally, the proportion of retracted papers is currently about 0.08 percent per year, estimates Oransky. That proportion has been growing in recent years.
The results from Al-Fanar Media’s analysis show that many countries in the Middle East and North Africa region have comparatively low rates of retractions. But others, including some countries that have a relatively high output of scientific publications, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, have comparatively high rates of retraction, although not nearly as high as China’s. To a certain degree, the retractions show that science works and that false results are being caught and reported, rather than covered up.
The Comoros, Djibouti, Mauritania, Somalia and Yemen had no retracted research papers at all during the time period examined. But this is probably because of an absence of research: Mauritania, for example, has only recently established its first medical school.
“Countries with no retractions means either no one is doing research, or no one is watching,” says Oranksy.
Indeed, the no-retraction countries in the Arab world have very low research output. The Comoros for example, produced just 157 research papers from 1996 to 2018—had it received just a single retraction, the archipelago nation would have had the highest retraction rate in the region.