The Rising Tide of Retractions


“But medicine has long had all its means to hand, and has discovered both a principle and a method, through which the discoveries made during a long period are many and excellent, while full discovery will be made, if the inquirer be competent, conduct his researches with knowledge of the discoveries already made, and make them his starting-point. But anyone who, casting aside and rejecting all these means, attempts to conduct research in any other way or after another fashion, and asserts that he has found out anything, is and has been victim of deception.”


(c. 460 B.C. – c. 370 B.C.)

A recent comprehensive study examining over 2000 biomedical research paper retractions from European institutions between 2000-2021 found that retractions have been steadily increasing over the past two decades. Even when accounting for the overall growth in publications, the retraction rate per 100,000 papers nearly quadrupled from 10.7 in 2000 to 44.8 in 2020. Most concerning is that two-thirds of these retractions were directly due to misconduct, with honest errors accounting for just 15.6% of cases.

This study provides compelling evidence that the integrity of European science is under threat. The reasons for misconduct have shifted over time, ranging from authorship and copyright issues earlier on to duplication and data issues now. Individual country patterns differ as well, with the UK showing higher rates of fabrication/falsification while Spain and Italy struggle more with duplication. These findings paint a picture of a research environment where cutting corners and unethical behaviors have become normalized.

So why have retraction rates due to misconduct risen so sharply? Some experts point to the increasing commercialization and marketization of universities as a primary driver. In recent decades, government research funding has stagnated in many European countries. At the same time, universities have been encouraged to seek alternative revenue streams, turning themselves into profit-seeking enterprises competing intensely for students, prestige, and investment dollars.

Under this model, universities aggressively push professors to maximize their research “portfolio” in terms of grant dollars and publications. Individual careers have also become greatly inflated by superficial metrics like the journal impact factor, number of papers, and citations. The pressure to “publish or perish” and to continually attract external funding has never been more intense. In this cutthroat environment, the temptation to take shortcuts, fake results, plagiarize, or duplicate may prove too difficult to resist for some.

Several studies support a connection between misconduct and competitive pressures. Professors in nations with stronger research assessment regimes, such as the UK and China, have higher retraction rates. Younger researchers and those without tenure also offend more, likely due to career insecurity. One Italian study found a link between local funding conditions and researchers’ self-reported willingness to misbehave.

A commercial university system rewards quantity over quality, speed over thoroughness, and superficial metrics over real achievement. These values easily distort research priorities, collaboration, and the overall culture of integrity when taken to an extreme. The quest for evermore publications in high-impact journals rarely leaves time for replication studies, null results, or thoughtful reflection on one’s work – breeding an environment where misconduct can bloom.

Trend in the main causes of research misconduct in Europe (number of papers retracted per 100,000 papers) Adapted Frpom

The solution requires a paradigm shift away from crass commercialization back towards a model that values public welfare above private profits. Universities must recouple research activity with its original purpose of expanding knowledge, not balance sheets. Careers should turn less on journal status games and more on merit determined through transparent peer review. And independent research accountability bodies, as some argue for at the European level, could help restore objectivity and deter potential offenders.

Most importantly, societies worldwide must choose to prioritize their scientists’ well-being over obsessive productivity metrics. Targets, performance indicators, and incessant competition diminish science when taken to an extreme. As long as researchers suffer under constant pressure to “achieve more with less,” some will rationalize taking unethical shortcuts to survive. We must reduce these incentives if integrity is to be safeguarded long-term. The escalating retraction crisis suggests that the time for change is now. Our knowledge and humanity depend on keeping the spirit of open inquiry untainted.

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About the Author

  • Dilruwan Herath

    Dilruwan Herath is a British infectious disease physician and pharmaceutical medical executive with over 25 years of experience. As a doctor, he specialized in infectious diseases and immunology, developing a resolute focus on public health impact. Throughout his career, Dr. Herath has held several senior medical leadership roles in large global pharmaceutical companies, leading transformative clinical changes and ensuring access to innovative medicines. Currently, he serves as an expert member for the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Medicine on it Infectious Disease Commitee and continues advising life sciences companies. When not practicing medicine, Dr. Herath enjoys painting landscapes, motorsports, computer programming, and spending time with his young family. He maintains an avid interest in science and technology. He is a founder of DarkDrug

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