What if I told you that half of the studies published in scientific journals today – the ones upon which news coverage of medical advances is often based – won’t hold up under scrutiny? You might say I had gone mad. No one would ever tolerate that kind of waste in a field as important – and expensive, to the tune of roughly US$30 billion in federal spending per year – as biomedical research, right? After all, this is the crucial work that hunts for explanations for diseases so they can better be treated or even cured.
Wrong. The rate of what is referred to as “irreproducible research” – more on what that means in a moment – exceeds 50%, according to a recent paper. Some estimates are even higher. In one analysis, just 11% of preclinical cancer research studies could be confirmed. That means that an awful lot of “promising” results aren’t very promising at all, and that a lot of researchers who could be solving critical problems based on previously published work end up just spinning their wheels.
So what gives? And how can we fix this problem?
What worms tell us about reproducibility
Although definitions of reproducibility and replication vary somewhat, for a study to be reproducible, another researcher needs to be able to replicate it, meaning use the same data and analysis to come to the same conclusions. There are lots of reasons why a study may not pass the replication test, from flat-out errors to a failure to adequately describe the methodology used. A researcher may have forgotten about a step in the process when he wrote up the methodology, for example, counted data in the wrong category, or written the wrong code for her statistics program.
Faking results is another reason, but it’s not nearly as common as others. Out-and-out fraud like that, or suspected fraud, is the reason for a bit fewer than half of the 400-plus retractions per year. But there are something like two million papers published annually, so the vast majority of studies containing irreproducible data are never retracted. And most scientists would agree that they shouldn’t be; after all, most science is overturned one way or another over time. Retraction should be reserved for the most severe cases. That doesn’t mean irreproducible papers shouldn’t be somehow marked, though.
Here’s a fresh example of a study that turned out not to be reproducible, because the results couldn’t be replicated: as Ben Goldacre relates in BuzzFeed, two economists published a massive study in 2004 claiming that a “deworm everyone” approach in Kenya “improved children’s health, school performance, and school attendance,” even among children several miles away who didn’t get deworming pills. Endorsed by the World Health Organization, it helped set policy that affects hundreds of millions of children annually in the developing world.
That, as Goldacre explains, “is definitely problematic.” But the reanalyses were possible only because the original authors “had the decency, generosity, strength of character, and intellectual confidence to let someone else peer under the bonnet” – a rare situation indeed.
Researchers are aware of the reproducibility problem, and some are trying to fix it. In response to alarming findings about the reproducibility of basic cancer research, a program called the Reproducibility Initiative has started providing “both a mechanism for scientists to independently replicate their findings and a reward for doing so.” It’s chosen 50 studies for independent validation – or not, since there’s certainly a chance the initial results won’t be reproducible. Those working on the project will perform the same kind of analyses that researchers did in the worm study replications. A similar effort has been ongoing in psychology, and other projects are under way in the social sciences.
All of these efforts will require scientists to share data, as the authors of the deworming study did. That has been a requirement in human studies for some years now, by many funders, and it’s encouraged by many journal editors. And while it’s not met 100% of the time, compliance is growing. Some basic science journals are moving to make it a requirement, too.
Perhaps more important, however, is that researchers – and the public that funds many of them – realize that science is a process, and that all knowledge is provisional. “It’s not just naive to expect that all research will be perfectly free from errors,” writes Goldacre, “it’s actively harmful.” Journalists, take note.
Translated into policy, that means valuing replication efforts, which right now are essentially unfunded and hardly ever published. If we want scientists to validate others’ work, we’ll need to create grants to do that. That means digging up additional funding, but replicating a study costs a tiny fraction of what the original work does. Funding new studies based on those that turn out to be irreproducible…well, now that’s expensive.
Trump defiantly refuses to condemn extremists groups at debate: ‘Proud Boys, stand back and stand by’
President Donald Trump on Tuesday refused an opportunity to disavow right-wing extremists and white supremacist groups.
At his first 2020 presidential debate, Trump was asked if he would speak out against the extremist groups.
"Are you willing, tonight, to condemn white supremacist and militia groups and to say that they need to stand down?" moderator Chris Wallace asked the president.
"I would say almost everything I see is from the left wing," Trump complained. "I'm willing to do anything. I want to see peace."
"Do it, sir," Wallace said.
"Say it," Democratic candidate Joe Biden chimed in.
‘He’s Putin’s puppy’: Biden rips Trump — and the president freaks out and breaks the debate rules
Former Vice President Joe Biden invoked President Donald Trump's subservience to Russian President Vladimir Putin during the first 2020 general election presidential debate.
"With regard to being weaker, the fact is I have gone head to head with Putin and made it clear to him we're not going to take any of his stuff," Biden said.
"He's Putin's puppy! He refuses to say anything to Putin about the bounty on the heads of American soldiers," Biden charged.
At that point, Trump interrupted to distract by talking about Hunter Biden.
"Mr. President, your campaign agreed to both sides would get two-minute answers, uninterrupted," moderator Chris Wallace noted. "Your side agreed to it and why don't you observe what your campaign agreed to as a ground rule, okay, sir?"
Chris Wallace yells at Trump after debate goes off the rails: ‘Frankly, you’ve been doing more interrupting’
Fox News moderator Chris Wallace admonished President Donald Trump for repeatedly refusing to let Democratic nominee Joe Biden have the floor at Tuesday night's debate.
Nearly an hour into the debate, Wallace seemed to realize that he had lost control of the president.
"No!" Wallace exclaimed as Trump tried to talk over him. "The answer to the question is no!"
But the president refused to be silent.
"Stop!" Wallace yelled. "Gentleman! I hate to raise my voice by why should I be different than the two of you?"
"We have ended that segment, we're going to go to the next segment," the moderator explained, turning to Trump. "I think that the country would be better served if we allowed both people to speak with fewer interruptions. I'm appealing to you, sir, to do that."