Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Research Misconduct and the Importance of Scientific Accountability

Working in science is privileged in that not everyone has the opportunity to do it; thus being a scientist comes with a great deal of responsibility.    Biomedical research in particular holds the promise of understanding a disease better, providing hope to the sick and healthy alike that we may one day better combat (just to name a few) cancer, heart disease, or neurodegenerative disorders within our lifetime.

Excellent science involves investigating and answering the important questions and the ability to follow through on this by forming solid conclusions that propel the field forward. I would argue that an emerging quality of a strong researcher is the ability to be resilient and open-minded, empirically following the data produced without letting opinions (or the allure of a high impact publication!) influence the direction of the work. In a recent TED talk on human moral code, Dr. Dan Ariely put it well when he said that scientists have a responsibility to “do more systematic experimentation of our intuitions.”  

Unfortunately, the present scientific environment makes this process quite difficult. Funding opportunities are competitive and scarce, leaving little time to follow up on negative data and perform trials in all preferred configurations. A recent article from the Economist points out the unfortunate reality of our situation; “irreproducibility [in science] is much more widespread,” and data backs this up.  It has been suggested that approximately three quarters of all biomedical studies are not reproducible.  So, if we can’t reproduce it, can we even trust in science? 

Furthermore, instances of research misconduct have been given a high profile in the media, giving the reliability of research a poor reputation. The retraction of the discredited Wakefield study, which infamously produced a great deal confusion in the public sphere over a putative link between vaccines and autism had severe consequences.  Many parents still choose not to vaccinate their children, leading to events such as the recent measles outbreak in Disneyland.  The profound impact of science on society makes it imperative that each increment of data added to the field of biology be examined with a high level of scrutiny.  

A recent interview with neuroscientist Dr. Brandon Stell, echoed these observations and opined that modern science is geared “toward mostly illusory ‘breakthroughs' and ‘high-impact research’ at the expense of careful work.”  To help reduce research misconduct, he and his colleagues created a tool called PubPeer. Pubpeer is an anonymous forum for other scientists to comment on the quality of the data published in the literature. It shows great promise as a system where scientists can begin to hold one another accountable in a public realm.  It is certainly a step in the direction towards filtering the sea of literature for the data that is high fidelity.

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