When you read about medical breakthroughs in the newspapers, you shouldn't get your hopes up. This is not because of journalistic hyperbole or even the fact that cures often are years away from the initial publication of result.
It seems that an increasing number of scientific studies are just plain wrong and are ultimately retracted. Worse, a study published in October 2012 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (uh, if it's true) claims that the majority of retractions are due to some type of misconduct, and not honest mistakes, as long assumed. Here are 5 doozies from 2012
Hyung-In Moon is a genius, says Moon
Korean scientist Hyung-In Moon took the concept of scientific peer review to a whole new level by reviewing his own papers under various fake names. Not surprising, his imaginary peers were quite impressed with his work.
But perhaps also not surprising from someone who attempts such a scheme, Moon's research — which included a study on alcoholic liver disease and another on an anticancer plant substance — can't be trusted. Moon admitted to falsifying data in some of his papers, according to Chronicle of Higher Education. So far, 35 of his papers have been retracted in 2012.
Math paper a big, fat zero
Neither the one-sentence abstract — "In this study, a computer application was used to solve a mathematical problem" — nor the co-author's e-mail address, firstname.lastname@example.org, seemed to dissuade the editors at Computers and Mathematics with Applications from publishing this one-page gem entitled "A computer application in mathematics" by the perhaps fictitious M. Sivasubramanian and S. Kalimuthu, the one working for Budweiser. It was published in January 2010 but not retracted until April 2012, despite silly sentences such as "Computer magnification is a Universal computer phenomenon" and "This is a problematic problem."
Two of the paper's references are to earlier, similar papers from M. Sivasubramanian, which also somehow got published. One is to a store that sells math games. And the other three are to non-existent websites. [5 Seriously Mind-Boggling Math Problems]
The journal, part of the respected Elsevier family of scientific publications, finally retracted the paper because it "contains no scientific content." The editors chalked it up to "an administrative error."
No pain, no gain?
Have you ever wondered whether there is any truth in the saying "no pain, no gain" or whether failure can be better for you than success?
The Dutch social psychologist Diederik Stapel has pondered such deep questions. His research has found that, paradoxically: failure sometimes feels better than success; beauty ads make women feel ugly; power increases infidelity among men and women; and comparing yourself to others might help you persevere with studying or dieting but ultimately won't make you happier.
Yes, Stapel has found lots and lots of stuff. His work has appeared in top journals. And his good looks and clever research topics made him a media darling, featured in The New York Times and on liberal-leaning television news programs.
The only problem is that his research appears to be either mostly or completely fabricated. So far, 31 papers have been retracted, according to Retraction Watch.
Rabbit testicles safe, for now
Studies proposing a link between cellphone use and cancer often rely on weak statistics. This one just used fudged data.
Back in 2008, scientists published a paper in the International Journal of Andrology stating that cellphones in standby mode lowered the sperm count and caused other adverse changes in the testicles of rabbits. [7 Surprising Facts About Sperm]
The study, although small and published in a rather obscure journal, made the news rounds. And the cautious human male, upon reading of the risks, might have moved his cellphone from his front pocket to the back.
In March 2012, the authors retracted the paper. It seems the lead author didn't get permission from his two co-authors and, according to the retraction notice, there was a "lack of evidence to justify the accuracy of the data presented in the article."
Stem-cell cure for heart disease likely faked
The timing was perfect. Kyoto University biologist Shinya Yamanaka had just won the 2012 Nobel Prize for his discovery of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells), which are adult cells that can be reprogrammed to their "embryonic" stage.
That's when Hisashi Moriguchi, a visiting researcher at the University of Tokyo, claimed at a New York Stem Cell Foundation meeting in early October to have advanced this technology to cure a person with terminal heart failure. It made sense, and the announcement rang around the world.
Just as quickly, however, the claim began to unravel. Two institutions listed as collaborating on Moriguchi's related papers — Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital — denied that any of Moriguchi's procedures took place there. By Oct. 19, the University of Tokyo fired Moriguchi for scientific dishonesty even as the investigation was just getting underway.
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Christopher Wanjek is a Live Science contributor and a health and science writer. He is the author of three science books: Spacefarers (2020), Food at Work (2005) and Bad Medicine (2003). His "Food at Work" book and project, concerning workers' health, safety and productivity, was commissioned by the U.N.'s International Labor Organization. For Live Science, Christopher covers public health, nutrition and biology, and he has written extensively for The Washington Post and Sky & Telescope among others, as well as for the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, where he was a senior writer. Christopher holds a Master of Health degree from Harvard School of Public Health and a degree in journalism from Temple University.