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The Demise of Science? Hundreds of Computer Generated Studies Have Been Published in Respected Scientific Journals

Scientific Journal

Story at-a-glance -

  • In 2005, three MIT graduate students created a program called SCIgen that randomly generates fake scientific papers. Since its inception, over 200 computer generated papers have been published in scientific journals
  • A French computer scientist has developed a program to detect SCIgen-generated studies, which anyone can use for free to find out if a study might be generated by a computer
  • Many health care professionals rely on published research to make treatment recommendations, and large numbers of patients can be affected when false findings make their way into otherwise respected journals
  • The prevalence of anti-scientific science is how we’ve ended up in a world of toxic chemical-based agriculture and subsidized junk food that deteriorates rather than supports health
  • Independent research, where funding is unrelated to findings, has become a rarity, and the end result is a dramatic deterioration of credible science

By Dr. Mercola

Many health care professionals rely on published research to make treatment recommendations, and large numbers of patients can be affected when false findings make their way into otherwise respected journals.

Unfortunately, this happens more frequently than you might think. In recent years, it's become quite clear that the scientific field has a major problem on its hands, as seriously flawed, and worse, outright falsified, research is entering the system at an increasing rate.

Bad information is usually worse than no information at all, especially when we're talking about health and treatment protocols that affect hundreds of thousands of patients.

Today, a majority of public health, diet, and medical treatment recommendations are flat out wrong, and this is precisely why allopathic care continues to become progressively more dangerous, killing patients rather than making them well.

The prevalence of anti-scientific science is also how we've ended up in a world of toxic chemical-based agriculture and subsidized junk food that deteriorates rather than supports health.

Industry and Medical Journals Are Destroying Credible Science

The problem, to a great extent, can be traced back to industry-based and industry-funded research, which has overtaken most scientific fields of inquiry. Independent research, where funding is unrelated to findings, has become a rarity, and the end result is a dramatic deterioration of credible science.

Chemical technology companies like Monsanto also fund colleges and universities, thereby gaining control over research, science, policy, and public opinion.

As an example of the quick deterioration of reputable science, consider the following: between 1966 and 1997, 37 percent of scientific retractions were due to scientific misconduct,1 which includes data falsification or fabrication, questionable veracity, unethical author conduct, or plagiarism.

Fast-forward a little more than a decade and that number skyrockets to 72 percent!2 The highest number of incidents of scientific misconduct occurred in the drug literature, where nearly 75 percent of the drug studies retracted between 2000 and 2011 were attributed to misconduct. Gone are the days when bad research was primarily due to honest human error, it seems.

Fake Science Run Amok

In recent years, a number of individuals have taken it upon themselves to prove just how easily the system can be fooled by fake science. One "sting operation" was concocted by a science journalist at Harvard University who wanted to test how likely it would be for bad research to be published in Open Access journals. 

The bogus paper described a simple experiment supposedly showing that lichens can slow cancer cell growth.3 More than half the journals—157 of the 304—accepted the fake paper for publication. The other half rejected it. The result of his "experiment" was published in Science magazine.4

However, traditional pay-for-access journals are not immune to publishing flawed studies. Most are also beholden to drug companies in one way or another. Investigations have repeatedly shown that studies funded by drug companies favor drugs 80 percent of the time.

This makes such conflicts of interest between Big Pharma and medical journals a major hurdle when it comes to upholding scientific excellence. Earlier this year, a study was published that showed nearly ONE MILLION Europeans were killed over a five-year span through the inappropriate prescription of beta blockers for non-cardiac surgery.

The research serving as the basis for this deadly prescription guideline was published in prestigious peer reviewed journals.

It's also important to realize that all research is NOT published. And it should come as no surprise that drug studies funded by a pharmaceutical company that reaches a negative conclusion will rarely ever see the light of day. This is equally, if not more, detrimental to science-based medicine.

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Hundreds of Computer Generated Studies Have Been Published

But it actually gets worse. The featured article in Slate magazine,5 headlined "How Gobbledygook Ended Up in Respected Scientific Journals," is an ominous warning of what is happening to the scientific field as a whole.

"In 2005, a group of MIT graduate students decided to goof off in a very MIT graduate student way: they created a program called SCIgen that randomly generated fake scientific papers. Thanks to SCIgen, for the last several years, computer-written gobbledygook has been routinely published in scientific journals and conference proceedings," Slate magazine reports.

"According to Nature News,Cyril Labbé, a French computer scientist, recently informed Springer and the IEEE, two major scientific publishers, that between them, they had published more than 120 algorithmically-generated articles.6

In 2012, Labbé had told the IEEE of another batch of 85 fake articles. He's been playing with SCIgen for a few years—in 2010 a fake researcher he created, Ike Antkare, briefly became the 21st most highly cited scientist in Google Scholar's database."

So, just how many papers containing computer generated nonsense have been published? It appears no one knows. The creators of SCIgen made the program available by free download, and other people, besides its three creators, have been using it, too.7

Labbé, mentioned above, developed a way to detect SCIgen generated manuscripts, and have alerted publishers about 205 of them so far. But there's no telling how many people, researchers included, have used SCIgen or how many of its papers have actually been accepted for publication. Nature8 writes:

"'The papers are quite easy to spot,' says Labbé, who has built a website9 where users can test whether papers have been created using SCIgen. His detection technique, described in a study10 published in Scientometrics in 2012, involves searching for characteristic vocabulary generated by SCIgen."

How Academic Publishing Contributes to Demise of Science

As reported in the featured Slate article,11 other major contributing factors to this deterioration of scientific merit is the fact that a) academic publishing has became incredibly lucrative, and b) in order to advance your academic career, you have to publish lots of papers.12 As explained by Slate magazine:

"Today, the most critical measure of an academic article's importance is the 'impact factor' of the journal it is published in. The impact factor... measures how often articles published in a journal are cited...13 There is an analogy here to the way Google and other search engines index Web pages. So-called search-engine optimization aims to boost the rankings of websites...

Scientists routinely add citations to papers in journals they are submitting to in the hopes of boosting chances of acceptance. They also publish more papers... in the hopes of being more widely cited themselves. This creates a self-defeating cycle... The only solution, as Colin Macilwain wrote in Nature14 last summer, is to 'Halt the avalanche of performance metrics.'"

NIH Vows to Tackle Science's Reproducibility Problem

In March 2012, Reuters15 reported the shocking finding that the vast majority of the "landmark" studies on cancer cannot be reproduced, and that a high proportion of those unreliable studies come from respectable university labs. Former drug company researcher Glenn Begley looked at 53 papers in the world's top journals, and found that he and a team of scientists were unable to replicate 47 of the 53 published studies—all of which were considered important and valuable for the future of cancer treatments! The allegations appeared in the March 28, 2012 issue of the journal Nature.16

"It was shocking," Begley told Reuters.17 "These are the studies the pharmaceutical industry relies on to identify new targets for drug development. But if you're going to place a $1 million or $2 million or $5 million bet on an observation, you need to be sure it's true. As we tried to reproduce these papers we became convinced you can't take anything at face value."

The "reproducibility problem" has become so great that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently vowed to tackle it head on, lest science lose all credibility. As reported by FierceBiotech:18

"[T]hanks to some high-profile failings in some of the world's leading journals, the call for reform has reached a fever pitch, and National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins has taken up the baton. In an essay published in Nature, Collins and Principal Deputy Director Lawrence Tabak write that 'the checks and balances that once ensured scientific fidelity have been hobbled' over the past few years, as researchers strive to be provocative at the cost of explaining their methodology.

That shoot-for-the-moon paradigm is only made worse by funding agencies, academic centers and journals, the two write, as many science financiers encourage hyperbole in hopes of snagging headlines. 
And while the problem starts at the preclinical level, it can quickly trickle up into the drug development world. As Reuters19 reports, Amgen found in 2011 that its researchers could confirm just 6 of the 53 breakthrough cancer studies they vetted, while Bayer said in 2012 that of 67 landmark studies in oncology, women's health, and cardiovascular disease, it could verify only 14." [Emphasis mine]

What's Being Done to Get Science Back on Track?

According to the NIH, part of the reproducibility problem stems from poor training, so a program is being developed to educate researchers on good experimental design and transparent conduct. It really is hard to imagine why researchers would not have received this type of training previously, as this is exactly the kind of training you should get when studying at some of the most respectable universities in the country. In my mind, this is yet another strong indication that industry funding research institutions is a trend loaded with potential for massive abuse.

Other strategies under consideration by the NIH include conducting more in-depth reviews to ensure appropriate scientific basis and viability of research. The NIH is also calling on journals, academics, and industry to assist in correcting current flaws. Journals, for example, are asked to highlight failed studies and corrections, while universities are urged to change priorities to avoid incentivizing premature publication in the interest of gaining tenure. Individual researchers are also urged to explain their methodology in greater detail, to facilitate evaluation of their work. Last but not least, the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology will be holding hearings in which researchers and journal editors will be interviewed to get a better grasp of the problems. If deemed necessary, policy recommendations may be issued.

The Era of Decision-Based Evidence Making Is Upon Us; Can This Trend Be Reversed?

It's become quite clear that instead of evidence-based decision making, we now have decision-based evidence making... Scientific evidence appears to be largely concocted to support an already established corporate agenda, and any scientific investigation that refutes or questions it is either suppressed or squelched by virtually any means.

The public is further deceived by clever and highly paid PR firms, disguised as scientific organizations but set up specifically for the purpose of controlling how the media reports new science and portrays industry. Two examples are Science Media Centre (SMC) and the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), both of which are heavily funded by industry. The problem is made worse by the fact that many journalists today are not doing their due diligence in fact-checking their sources.

These organizations are anything but independent, from their scientists to their governing boards. SMC has branches all over the world, its primary purpose being to control the press using a team of not-so-independent scientists who spin science news in industry's favor. SMC "experts" (physicians, research scientists, university professors, etc.) have undisclosed and far-reaching affiliations with biotech giants, including EFSA, Bayer, Pioneer-DuPont, Syngenta, and Monsanto. You've likely seen these so-called experts on the evening news spinning scientific information more times than you can count.

Who and What Can You Trust?

The bottom line is that you need to be skeptical of ANY published study, particularly if it comes from an obscure journal. But you can no longer completely trust even the most respected journals, for all of the reasons discussed above. Always consider the source of the information... Who funded the study and where it was published? Also do not accept the findings of any single paper, as scientific results are only reliable after replication and the building of consensus through time. Always look for corroboration.

In order to determine the best course of action in any situation, you've got to use all the resources available to you, including your own common sense and reason, true expert advice, and the experience of those you trust. Remain skeptical but open. Even if it is something I'm saying, you need to realize that YOU are responsible for your and your family's health, not me—and certainly not the pharmaceutical and/or chemical technology industries who will try to sell you their wares and seduce you with innovative (but often risky) "science-based solutions."

If you're facing a health challenge, make sure your healthcare practitioners really understand health at a foundational level and have extensive experience helping others. In the meantime, be proactive! Making wise lifestyle choices will keep you healthy and decrease your odds of needing risky medical interventions in the future.