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How science goes wrong

Scientific research has changed the world.Now it needs to change itself

A SIMPLE idea underpins science: ¡°trust,but verify¡±. Results should always be subject to challenge from experiment.That simple but powerful idea has generated a vast body of knowledge. Since itsbirth in the 17th century, modern science has changed the world beyondrecognition, and overwhelmingly for the better.

But success can breed complacency. Modernscientists are doing too much trusting and not enough verifying¡ªto thedetriment of the whole of science, and of humanity.

Too many of the findings that fill theacademic ether are the result of shoddy experiments or poor analysis (seearticle). A rule of thumb among biotechnology venture-capitalists is that halfof published research cannot be replicated. Even that may be optimistic. Lastyear researchers at one biotech firm, Amgen, found they could reproduce justsix of 53 ¡°landmark¡± studies in cancer research. Earlier, a group at Bayer, adrug company, managed to repeat just a quarter of 67 similarly importantpapers. A leading computer scientist frets that three-quarters of papers in hissubfield are bunk. In 2000-10 roughly 80,000 patients took part in clinicaltrials based on research that was later retracted because of mistakes orimproprieties.

Even when flawed research does not putpeople¡¯s lives at risk¡ªand much of it is too far from the market to do so¡ªitsquanders money and the efforts of some of the world¡¯s best minds. Theopportunity costs of stymied progress are hard to quantify, but they are likelyto be vast. And they could be rising.

One reason is the competitiveness ofscience. In the 1950s, when modern academic research took shape after itssuccesses in the second world war, it was still a rarefied pastime. The entireclub of scientists numbered a few hundred thousand. As their ranks haveswelled, to 6m-7m active researchers on the latest reckoning, scientists havelost their taste for self-policing and quality control. The obligation to¡°publish or perish¡± has come to rule over academic life. Competition for jobsis cut-throat. Full professors in America earned on average $135,000 in2012¡ªmore than judges did. Every year six freshly minted PhDs vie for everyacademic post. Nowadays verification (the replication of other people¡¯sresults) does little to advance a researcher¡¯s career. And withoutverification, dubious findings live on to mislead. Careerism also encourages exaggeration andthe cherry-picking of results. In order to safeguard their exclusivity, theleading journals impose high rejection rates: in excess of 90% of submittedmanuscripts. The most striking findings have the greatest chance of making itonto the page. Little wonder that one in three researchers knows of a colleaguewho has pepped up a paper by, say, excluding inconvenient data from results¡°based on a gut feeling¡±. And as more research teams around the world work on aproblem, the odds shorten that at least one will fall prey to an honestconfusion between the sweet signal of a genuine discovery and a freak of thestatistical noise. Such spurious correlations are often recorded in journalseager for startling papers. If they touch on drinking wine, going senile orletting children play video games, they may well command the front pages ofnewspapers, too. Conversely, failures to prove a hypothesisare rarely even offered for publication, let alone accepted. ¡°Negative results¡±now account for only 14% of published papers, down from 30% in 1990. Yetknowing what is false is as important to science as knowing what is true. Thefailure to report failures means that researchers waste money and effortexploring blind alleys already investigated by other scientists. The hallowed process of peer review is notall it is cracked up to be, either. When a prominent medical journal ranresearch past other experts in the field, it found that most of the reviewersfailed to spot mistakes it had deliberately inserted into papers, even afterbeing told they were being tested. If it¡¯s broke, fix it All this makes a shaky foundation for anenterprise dedicated to discovering the truth about the world. What might bedone to shore it up? One priority should be for all disciplines to follow theexample of those that have done most to tighten standards. A start would begetting to grips with statistics, especially in the growing number of fieldsthat sift through untold oodles of data looking for patterns. Geneticists havedone this, and turned an early torrent of specious results from genomesequencing into a trickle of truly significant ones. Ideally, research protocols should be registeredin advance and monitored in virtual notebooks. This would curb the temptationto fiddle with the experiment¡¯s design midstream so as to make the results lookmore substantial than they are. (It is already meant to happen in clinicaltrials of drugs, but compliance is patchy.) Where possible, trial data alsoshould be open for other researchers to inspect and test. The most enlightened journals are alreadybecoming less averse to humdrum papers. Some government funding agencies,including America¡¯s National Institutes of Health, which dish out$30 billionon research each year, are working out how best to encourage replication. Andgrowing numbers of scientists, especially young ones, understand statistics.But these trends need to go much further. Journals should allocate space for¡°uninteresting¡± work, and grant-givers should set aside money to pay for it.Peer review should be tightened¡ªor perhaps dispensed with altogether, in favourof post-publication evaluation in the form of appended comments. That systemhas worked well in recent years in physics and mathematics. Lastly,policymakers should ensure that institutions using public money also respectthe rules.

Science still commands enormous¡ªifsometimes bemused¡ªrespect. But its privileged status is founded on the capacityto be right most of the time and to correct its mistakes when it gets thingswrong. And it is not as if the universe is short of genuine mysteries to keepgenerations of scientists hard at work. The false trails laid down by shoddyresearch are an unforgivable barrier to understanding.

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