Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Cracks in the Edifice of Science

By Michael Cook

A tenfold increase in the number of retractions over the past 10 years raises questions about the infallibility of peer review of scientific research.

Michael Cook is editor of the bioethics website BioEdge.

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

The novels of Sinclair Lewis (1885–1951), the first American Nobel laureate for literature, seem rather clunky nowadays but he had a knack for channelling the Zeitgeist. In Arrowsmith, published in 1925, an old German professor eulogises scientists:

The normal man, he does not care much what he does except that he should eat and sleep and make love. But the scientist is intensely religious – he is so religious that he will not accept quarter-truths, because they are an insult to his faith. He wants that everything should be subject to inexorable laws... He is the only real revolutionary.

Decades later, the public still regards men and women in white lab coats as selfless seekers after truth. However, some thoughtful scientists are worried. Even though the scientific method is universally accepted as one of mankind’s greatest achievements, it has been bruised by the all-too-human failings: greed, aggression, fraud, and ambition.

In fact, some speak of a crisis.

The New York Times recently highlighted the belief of the editor of the scientific journal Infection and Immunity, Dr Ferric C. Fang, that a tenfold increase in the number of retractions over the past 10 years is a symptom of “a dysfunctional scientific climate”.

Fang recently issued a call for root-and-branch reform in an eloquent editorial:

Incentives in the...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.