Considering the threats science is facing today in the form of funding cutbacks and rampant conspiracy theories, the last thing it needs is for a prominent paper to be found to have been faked. That, however, is what a number of marine biologists are alleging. The story might end up damaging public trust in science, but it should actually do the opposite. It shows that while science can go wrong, it has mechanisms that eventually correct its errors.
Last year Science ran a paper that got plenty of attention, including from IFLScience. Concern is building about the effects microplastics are having on marine ecosystems, but this paper indicated things were worse than anyone expected. European perch eggs exposed to microplastics were far less likely to hatch, the authors claimed, and if they did, produce smaller fish unable to flee predators.
Worst of all, perch larvae preferred to eat plastic waste to their natural foods, meaning the products would enter the food chain astonishingly rapidly.
Now, however, the claims are in dispute, with fellow researchers at the laboratory where the work was supposedly done claiming that no study of the size described in the paper was conducted at the time. The authors are standing by their claims, however.
The paper's first author is Dr Oona Lönnstedt of the University of Uppsala, Sweden. Lönnstedt only completed her PhD three years ago, yet she's co-authored more papers than most researchers substantially older than her. From studying the unusual way damselfish escape predators to the spread of invasive species on coral reefs, Lönnstedt made her name as a marine biology rising star.
With such a career Lönnstedt seems an unlikely candidate to falsify studies, yet that is what several scientists at the Ar Research Station in the Baltic Sea are alleging. Dr Josefin Sundin of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, who is leading the charge, was at Ar when Lönnstedt claims her work was done, and says Lönnstedt had too few fish and insufficient equipment potentially devoted to the project to support her claims.
When Science's European news editor Martin Enserink inquired, Lönnstedt attributed the allegations to envy by less successful researchers. Journals are looking into toughening their standards for verifying data and there is discussion of having researchers film their work.
Peer reviewed scientific papers frequently get overturned, for many reasons, but straight fabrication is incredibly rare, particularly from someone with Lönnstedt's bright career prospects. The events have raised questions about Science, and Uppsala University's handling of the complaints, and about the pressure and lack of supervision early career scientists often experience.
Nevertheless, it seems likely that, if the allegations are true, the paper will be withdrawn and changes made to the investigation process, all within the space of a year.
Update: The paper has been withdrawn at the authors' request. Although they continue to defend their work, the authors have asked the journal Science to withdraw the paper while it remains under suspicion, and this has been agreed to.