Errors and fraud multiply in science journals

jneff@newsobserver.comJanuary 19, 2014 

Whether it’s manufacturing medicine, measuring a microscopic object or culturing cells in a petri dish, there’s a bedrock principle of science: One scientist should be able to reproduce the results of another.

Errors and outright fraud in science have become a topic of increasing interest in recent years.

The National Academies of Science noted last year that there has been a tenfold increase since 1975 in scientific papers retracted because of fraud. A popular scientific blog, Retraction Watch, reports daily on retractions, corrections and fraud from all corners of the scientific world.

Scientific fraud and error can rack up large costs, either to scientists trying to replicate the claims, or companies that purchase patents and invest in the research.

Here are several cases of high-dollar, high-profile research for which claims made in the scientific literature could not be replicated in other research labs:

•  In 2008, Pfizer paid $725 million for the rights to a Russian cold medicine called Dimebon. The pharmaceutical giant thought the drug could help ameliorate the symptoms of Alzheimer’s. Several clinical trials showed the medicine had no more impact than a placebo. Pfizer has largely abandoned the project.

• In 2008, GlaxoSmithKline paid $720 million for Sirtris, a pharmacuetical company that touted the anti-aging benefits of resveratrol, a substance found in red wine. In 2011, the company ended its clinical trials of resveratrol. In March, GlaxoSmithKline shut down the Sirtris office. The company said it was optimistic the Sirtris team would develop valuable drugs but said it had stopped pursuing resveratrol research.

•  In 2011, Nature Reviews Drug Discovery reported that Bayer Corp. successfully reproduced published results in just one-quarter of 67 seminal studies published in academic journals. Nature later reported that scientists at the drug company Amgen were able to replicate only six of 53 landmark studies on cancer.

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