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Clues could help identify fraudulent research before publication

4443921690_d3b8c60e91_zLiars leave behind evidence, researchers have found, whether they're bluffing at poker or fabricating financial reports. Now, a study published in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology has identified clues left by researchers who falsify their work.

The study's authors examined 253 primarily biomedical papers that were retracted from journals for fraud and compared them to papers from the same journals, time periods and publication topics. They developed a "obfuscation index," which included abstract language, jargon, positive emotional terms, casual language and a reading difficulty score. Fraudulent papers had higher scores than accurate papers, the team found.

A Stanford Report article explains:

"We believe the underlying idea behind obfuscation is to muddle the truth," said graduate student David Markowitz, the lead author on the paper. "Scientists faking data know that they are committing a misconduct and do not want to get caught. Therefore, one strategy to evade this may be to obscure parts of the paper. We suggest that language can be one of many variables to differentiate between fraudulent and genuine science."

The results showed that fraudulent retracted papers scored significantly higher on the obfuscation index than papers retracted for other reasons. For example, fraudulent papers contained approximately 1.5 percent more jargon than unretracted papers.

"Fradulent papers had about 60 more jargon-like words per paper compared to unretracted papers," Markowitz said in the article. "This is a non-trivial amount."

Previously: New Stanford Medicine magazine explores bioethics, Using social media in clinical research: Case studies address ethical gray areas and "U.S. effect" leads to publication of biased research, says Stanford's John Ioannidis
Photo by Alan Cleaver

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