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Fraud and plagiarism behind most paper retractions, says a new US study.

Scientific misconduct is the reason for two-thirds of retractions of scientific research papers, according to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science in the USA.

Retractions are not always explained, or the real reasons are covered up. The study’s authors – Arturo Casadevall, Ferric Fang and R. Grant Steen – decided to investigate this further and examine the underlying causes behind retractions.  In this comprehensive study they looked at over 2,000 retracted articles in the PubMed database going back to the 1940s.

Their analysis shows that 67.2% of retractions were because of fraud, suspected fraud or plagiarism rather than honest mistakes. It also reveals that retractions are on the rise. This is partly explained by the fact that publishers have been using software to detect plagiarism and duplication since 2005.

On the positive side, fraud does not appear to be widespread, with just 38 research groups responsible for 43.9 percent of retractions for fraud or suspected fraud.

An increase in detection levels does not necessarily mean fraud is increasing, just that it is being spotted more. Some scientists, however, such as Danielle Fanelli of the University of Edinburgh, are linking the rise in scientific fraud to the growing pressure of academics to publish in an increasingly harsh financial climate.

VA studies have shown that scientific fraud has a corrosive effect on public trust in science and research in Sweden. Fang and Casadevall, two authors of this new report, have expressed concern that their study could be “misused to erode public trust in science”. However they believe that “sweeping misconduct under the rug would be even more harmful”. Perhaps this research can help do more to tackle the problem and restore some lost public confidence.


Image courtesy of Renjith Krishnan at



European Researchers’ Night – what’s happening across Europe?


Make a comet in London; create a cloud in Italy or explore a volcano in the Canary Islands. It can only be European Researchers’ Night, back for the 8th year running in 350 European cities from Iceland to Cyprus, from Portugal to Turkey.

Lithuanian researchers will be inviting people to come to their laboratories or to meet them in cafes to find out more about their research. For example – what about the water? Mains water supplies in Lithuanian cities are clean and safe but this is not always true of water from wells which often have high nitrate levels. Join Associate Professor Dr. Lima Česoniené to find out about the quality of water in Lithuania, the causes of pollution and the impact on human health. Alternatively Lithuanian researchers will be demonstrating Gladioli research and computers controlled purely by your eyes.

If you find yourself in Lisbon, why not pop along to the Tropical Botanical Garden to find out about plant research and sport. Visitors are invited to bring a flash-light to the twilight gardens.

I am delighted to say that several UK institutions are taking part this year. Sheffield University will become the 6th UK institution to participate (ever) in Researchers’ Night. Eighty researchers will be on hand to welcome visitors to the university buildings.  Amongst tours, lectures and shows, science “buskers” will demonstrate quick hands on experiments including turning marmite white, which I would love to see! Down in London, The Natural History Museum will feature 350 scientists and experts at its open door Science Uncovered event . Or I would personally love to see The Naked Scientists’ Crisp Packet Firework Show at Queen Mary College, London.

In Izmir in Turkey there is also a very busy and exciting programme under the heading “European Science Funday”. Included in the programme are kitchen experiments, bubbles and lego. What more can you want? And it is bound to be sunny…

If you can’t make it to Izmir however, Sweden is putting on another splendid show this year. ForskarFredag 2012, coordinated for the 8th year by VA, will have exciting events in 28 Swedish cities. So wherever you are, go out and have some good scientific fun!

Gene technology: is success being squandered by a lack of political will?

Listening to a BBC radio interview a few days ago, I heard an interview with John Burn, Professor of Clinical Genetics at Newcastle University. He was talking about how political will is needed to make full use of the great progress that has been made in gene technology.

The medical revolution we have been promised for more than a decade could be upon us. Advances in gene technology now allow us to predict which people are at high risk of developing certain conditions by screening their genes. If, as Professor Burn said, we can get to the patients before the disease then there are many things that can be done right now to prevent it taking hold.

So what is the problem? Money – and more specifically investment in a bioinformatics institute. The UK government has invested heavily in this medical field over many years. Now this investment is paying off – many rare and complex syndromes, often affecting children, can now be detected. But before this information can be used to help people, we need to have the processing capacity to handle the huge amount of genetic data generated. The science base needs to be increased and retrained to cope with the huge amount of computation, sequencing and analysis.

Prof Burn argues that the UK should be leading this field; the British public are broadly supportive of these sometimes controversial developments, unlike those of other countries. However the Department of Health says that until a treatment is approved by NICE (the UK drug approval agency), it will not make any further investment. Not surprising in these hard financial times, but infrastructure like this is not created overnight.

There is already a European Bioinformatics Institute based in the UK, but as it is funded by 20 member states cannot be expected to perform routine screenings for UK NHS patients. As the potential and demand for new cures increases so will the political and public debate….. let’s see what happens in the coming months.

Image courtesy of sheelamohan and

Salt: the new Tobacco?

The UK Department of Health announced this week that the salt reduction programme introduced ten years ago is working. The average Brit consumes 1.5g less salt a day. With an average daily intake of 8.1g there is still some way to go to reach the target of 6.0g, but estimates suggest that around 8.500 lives are being saved as a result of this reduction.

Or are they….?

Not everyone agrees that salt is bad for your health in the first place. The generally accepted wisdom is that too much salt increases blood pressure which is largely responsible for many strokes and heart attacks. There is plenty of science to back this up, many can be found here on the CASH (Consensus Action for Salt and Health) website. There are also many voices disputing this in the UK, the USA and around the world.

For example, this article in Scientific American published last year summarises the doubts, saying there is no significant increase in stroke risk for people of normal and high blood pressure and that the link between salt consumption and heart attacks has always been tenuous.

Half-listening to a radio programme featuring Professor Graham MacGregor – chairman of CASH and professor of cardiovascular medicine – I was surprised to hear that salt is a highly controversial substance. The programme was supposed to be about how restaurants and fast-food outlets could do more to reduce salt levels in their products. It turned into a heated debate about the validity of the research linking salt to health problems. Many accusations were thrown which had the familiar ring of the “smoking does/does not cause lung cancer” debates: the salt industry is rich and powerful – the research is not independent; the data has not been interpreted accurately; there is no causal link between salt intake and heart attacks….

For now however most national governments and the World Health Organisation are on the side of Professor MacGregor and salt reduction.

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105 science academies release joint statement ahead of Rio summit

Population growth and global consumption must be addressed urgently, says the IAP, the body representing the world’s 105 scientific academies. In a rare joint statement signed by all 105 bodies, scientists across the globe call for “urgent and coordinated action” to address “two of the most profound challenges to humanity”.

Population and consumption will be two “elephants in the room” at the forthcoming Rio 20+ summit (June 20th – 22nd). There is little point talking about climate change or environmental protection without first addressing how many people are using up the Earth’s resources and how quickly they are doing so.

And it is so serious that the world’s 105 science academies have got together to call for action on this political hot-potato.

For these are politically sensitive issues. Population control means access to contraception. The Vatican for one is threatening to block moves for free access to reproductive health services. And asking people to consume less and work for longer is not going to be a vote winner. The type of negative reporting which often accompanies calls for reduced consumption can be summarised by the following headline from a site called the Register

“No babies, no technology, work till you die…”

A more reasonable (if less catchy) statement came from within the Royal Society in London:

“For too long the dual issues of population and consumption have been left off the table due to political and ethical sensitivities,” said Professor Charles Godfrey, Fellow of the Royal Society and Working Group Chair of the IAP, the global network of science academies. “These are issues that affect us all, developed and developing nations alike, and we must take responsibility for them together.”

Let’s hope the politicians are listening.

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An Olympic Molecule


Researchers have synthesised Olympicene, a new molecule in the shape of the Olympic Rings.


When scientists at the Royal Society in London met to discuss how best to mark the London 2012 Olympic games, Professor Graham Richards had the idea to create an Olympic themed molecule.


Easier said than done. And almost as difficult to take a photo of the molecule once created.


University of Warwick researchers Anish Mistry and David Fox came up with synthesis and went on to take images of the molecule using non-contact atomic force microscopy. At just 1.2nm wide, it has been dubbed “the smallest logo in the world”.


Fascinating chemistry – but is it useful?

Perhaps, but the man behind it all said he hoped its greatest use would be inspire young people to study chemistry.


“”Molecules of this nature could conceivably have commercial use, but my own feeling is that above all we want to excite an interest in chemistry provoked by the link with the Olympics,” said Professor Richards.


Read more and see the pictures at the links below:




Daily Mail


Huffington Post


Warwick University


Image courtesy of


A busy week for “Open Access”

There has been a lot happening in the fight for open access in recent weeks.

The Wellcome Trust, one of the world’s largest research funding bodies, has announced it will soon be launching a scientific journal eLife, which will compete with the most elite publications such as Nature and Science. The trust has also said it will “adopt a robust approach” to scientists it funds who do not publish their work in an open access journal within 6 months. Failure to publish through open access will mean they will not receive funding in the future.

In the USA, which lags behind Europe in Open Access, a White House petition has been set up for people to sign. Anyone can sign, including non-US citizens (you can sign it here!). Although a petition does not sounds like much, the President is known to be sympathetic to Open Access and the White House has been looking into it for some time. So signs are hopeful.

In an surprising and lengthy speech to the Publishers Association in London this week, the UK minister for Universities and Science David Willets made the UK government’s position clear. He declared that “Wider Access is the Way forward” and that he hoped it would “…bring science and research closer to the public”.

And in Brussels, Open Access is set “to be the norm” for the Horizon 2020 programme with a budget of €80 billion.

So the future is looking rosy for Open Access. An article in the Economist a few weeks ago put some numbers on what publishing costs universities: an annual subscription to the chemistry journal Tetrahedron costs $20,269; the Journal of Mathematical Sciences costs $20,100. It compares this to the enormous profits of publishers, saying that the situation is absurd.

That research funded by public and charitable funds should be freely available to all seems to be the widely accepted view (except perhaps by the publishers). With more and more weighty funding bodies behind Open Access, it looks like free and unrestricted access to research will become “the norm” before much longer.

Photo courtesy of

Mock funeral for Science


 A dramatic protest by scientists was staged in Westminster, London on Tuesday. At a mock Victorian funeral over 100 scientists, mainly organic chemists, carried a coffin with floral wreaths spelling out “SCIENCE”.  The coffin contained a petition against science budget cuts, which they then delivered to the Prime Minister’s residence. Twenty-five scientists also held early morning meetings with their MPs before parliament opened.

With the threat of cuts to funding increasing, scientists  are increasingly finding their voice. This protest follows on from the 2010 Science is Vital campaign where thousands of scientists successfully campaigned against budget cuts. This current tide of anger amongst scientists is again being displayed in a very theatrical way (the funeral) but also in a more constructive way – through dialogue with MPs.

The protests are against science funding policy in the UK, with protesters concerned about the erosion of blue-skies research. The group Science for the Future has the support of nine Nobel Laureates. One complaint is against the requirement for applicants to predict in advance the benefits of their research. Policies like this would certainly not have led to the discovery of lasers or penicillin, argue the protesters. For more information see the links below:

Article in the Guardian


Letter from Nobel Laureates


Science is Vital


EPSRC statement


Oklahoma rejects anti-science bill

Many news articles and blog posts (including on the VA blog) are written about the rise of creationism in American schools. It was therefore heart-warming to read the headline “Oklamhama Anti-Science Legislation Fails again”.

Two anti-science bills which set out to encourage teachers to present “scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses” of “controversial” topics such as evolution and climate change have already failed at the committee stage. This amendment, which was an attempt to delay the purchase of text books and teaching materials, has also failed. Coordinating the resistance was Oklamhomans for Excellence in Science Education (OESE), a non-profit grassroots organisation. As well as campaigning for high quality science teaching and arguing against intelligent design and creationism, OESE also runs a Clergy Letter project. Clergy are invited to sign a letter of support for the teaching of evolution at Their aim is to address the perception that science and religion are inevitably in conflict over the teaching of evolution.

Oklahoma State is part of the Bible belt, politically conservative and well known for its Christianity and evangelism. This is a most encouraging story, though it has not grabbed the headlines as much as more dramatic bad-news stories of an anti-science state.


Scientists’ video appeal to protesters

Researchers hope that dialogue and communication will prevent the destruction of their experiments.

A group of scientists at Rothamstead Research in the UK are conducting a trial in wheat genetically modified to repel insects. An anti-GM group “Take the flour back” calling for a mass action to “decontaminate” the site on May 27th – in other words, to destroy the crop.

The scientists involved however are fighting back by engaging openly and publically with the protesters, urging them to reconsider their actions. In an open letter and a video message (posted here on YouTube), the scientists plead with the protesters “in the spirit of openness and dialogue” not to destroy their work.

Instead they invite the protesters to come and discuss their work and see for themselves what they are trying to achieve.

In the video, four scientists appeal directly to the protesters’ common sense. Describing themselves as environmentalists, they set out how the crops could benefit the environment, explain (calmly) that no cow genes are involved, that this publically funded research has no links to industry and is entirely not-for-profit.

Destroying valuable publically funded research, they argue, will make it impossible for anyone except the deep-pocketed bio-tech companies to be able to run this type of research with the enormous security bills they require. And this is not what they want, either.

The scientists are convincing, honest and very genuine. I hope the protesters see sense and go in peace on May 27th to see for themselves.

Read more at these links:

Rothamstead Research

Guardian article

BBC news