Fake research and fake news

By: Tonya Mead, CFE, CHFI,  PI, MBA, MA Educational Psychology

There has been such an uproar about fake news surfacing on the internet, television and radio. Some wonder whether anything we can’t see, hear, taste or touch for ourselves is really real. Now it looks like we may need to add fake research to our list of modern day frustrations.

Retraction Watch recently reported that the reviews published in the journal, Tumors Biology to validate the work of 486 authors were faked!  As most of the authors were based in China, the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology released findings last Friday indicating that these 486 authors (from 521 implicated) were found guilty of misconduct. Even 12 of the papers,  according to the investigators, were purchased from a paper mill!

The Chinese are not alone in their quest to stamp out fake research. I wrote in my book about the inquiries Harvard University made in 2010 about scientific misconduct. At the time they alluded to problems of “data acquisition, data analysis, data retention and the reporting of research methodologies, and results.”[1] Other schools and universities face similar problems.

Beyond the falsification of reviews, in my book, I uncovered research showing that the tampering of research data causes about 65% of all retractions of scientific research [2]. What can we do to prevent the spread of fake news and fake research?

Related articles on data tampering

Methods to stop the spread of fake news

The NY Times queried a number of their readers to determine how best to stop the spread of fake news. Answers ranged from: changing financial incentives, create algorithms to help social media users identify fake news, users should be more critical,  and hire more human editors.

Methods to stop fake research

Researchers, too, are incentivized financially to produce and publish as many peer reviewed articles as possible. In fact, published research, patents and citations are criteria used by the US News & World Report to rank colleges and universities. Work by Meredith Davis appearing in Science Direct concluded that these components have a “disproportionate influence over other indicators of educational success in an institution’s position in most rankings.”

It is probably illogical to modify the college ranking system as students and their families increasingly “consult these evaluations when making college decisions, and sponsors of faculty research consider reputation when forming academic partnerships.” [3, page 215, para 1].

However, what can be done is:

  • Strengthen the internal control system for entering, maintaining, analyzing and storing data, and placing
  • emphasize stringent quality control reviews and systems for independent third party evaluation of research.

Both could do much to stop fake research from spreading.


  1. S. Wade, “Harvard Finds Scientist Guilty of Misconduct,” The New York Times. August 20, 2010. Available: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/21/education/21harvard.html?_r=0
  2. 2.S. Richards, “Fraud Breeds Retractions,” The Scientist. October 1, 2012. Available: http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/32687/title/Fraud-Breeds-Retractions/
  3. M. Davis. “Can College Rankings be Believed?” She Ji: The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation. Volume 2, Issue 3, Autumn 2016, pgs. 215-230. Elsevier Publishing. Available at: http://ac.els-cdn.com/S2405872616300570/1-s2.0-S2405872616300570-main.pdf?_tid=b33cd8fc-77d4-11e7-a883-00000aab0f26&acdnat=1501714288_5cfdfdfcb75e56d371f3fb013172a697

Tonya J. Mead, CFE, CHFI, PI, MBA, MA, Certified K-12 Administrator and School Psychologist is author of Fraud in Education: Beyond the Wrong Answer and president of Shared Knowledge, LLC https://ishareknowledge.com