The editor-in-chief of BioTechniques asks us to exercise our tongues around a new one: irreproducible. It’s a big problem in biology studies today.
In “A Simple Question of Reproducibility,” Nathan Blow writes:
The troubling trend of irreproducibility, which has been brewing for some time now, came to a head for many with the publication of a commentary in the journal Nature by Begley and Ellis finding that the results of 47 out of 53 studies could not be replicated. These preclinical studies formed the basis for other research studies and in some instances were the starting points for costly drug studies. Begley and Ellis are not alone in their findings- other reports have surfaced in recent months highlighting the problem of irreproducible studies.
Recently, a group called the Global Biological Standards Institute (GBSI) presented a report making a case for biological standards. In interviews with 60 key figures in the life science community, nearly 75% of those interviewed described having to deal with irreproducible data and/or results. … It is interesting to note that at this moment of greater irreproducibility in life science, journals continue to minimize the space given to Materials and Methods sections in articles. More.
We all know the basic problem: Studies with “positive” findings get published amid a storm of publicity. That’s where the rewards are. As noted earlier:
One well-recognized problem is a deforming bias toward publishing positive findings. As Daniel Sarewitz put it in Nature, when positive findings are published, “scientists are rewarded both intellectually and professionally, science administrators are empowered and the public desire for a better world is answered.” He also notes that “the lack of incentives to report negative results, replicate experiments or recognize inconsistencies, ambiguities and uncertainties is widely appreciated—but the necessary cultural change is incredibly difficult to achieve.”
It is difficult to achieve because disproving a discipline’s nostrums (through failed replication) is a high-risk activity. Take, for instance, a recent replication attempt that failed to support the classic 1948 Bateman study underpinning Darwinian sexual selection (males benefit from promiscuity, females from monogamy). Will Darwinists thank the authors for this news, when their theory is under fire elsewhere?
Conformism is more rewarding. Professor of medicine Fred Southwick recently complained in The Scientist that “many who succeed in advancing to leadership positions in academia have been cautious, making few enemies and stirring little controversy. But such a strategy fails to generate the insights that drive scientific fields of research forward.”
It’s no surprise, then, that in PLoS Medicine, John P. A. Ioannidis was bold enough to explain, in 2005, “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False.” He posited that, “for many current scientific fields, claimed research findings may often be simply accurate measures of the prevailing bias”6—what dissident biologist Lynn Margulis (1938–2011) described to science writer Suzan Mazur in 2008 as a “cycle of submission.”
Blow seeks new standards, and we wish him luck, because the real challenge is to address the underlying problems, which will vitiate many attempts at reform.
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