Tuesday, January 17, 2017

"Publish or Perish", Human Nature, and Media Hype--A Bad Cocktail

The "publish-or-perish culture" that dominates science today has pushed the field in an undesirable direction. But despite the fact that much of the science we see published today is inconsistently reproducible, this is not all entirely due to the "publish-or-perish" culture, nor maleficent cherry-picking motivated by self-gain. The truth behind the current situation is much more benign, although equally worrisome and harmful.

The first explanation simply lies in the imperfection of science. An article on Scientific American reveals that even the scientists we consider greatest had experiments that led to irreproducibility upon others’ attempts to repeat it. Rather than stigmatize irreproducibility and experiments that didn’t “work,” it would be more beneficial to open up discussion and generate a space where it is possible to talk about this issue and resolve it, as is being done in PubPeer. By making discussion about the more fallible aspects of science open, researchers wouldn't feel pressured to only report experiments that “worked” and hide those that didn’t. Consequently, experiments that had statistically insignificant or unexpected results could serve as advice or inspiration for future research.

The effects of the stigma against insignificant results and irreproducibility are compounded by human nature. More insidious and difficult to detect are our conflicts of interest and tendencies for dishonesty. While it is easier to detect conflicts of interest in others, as Dan Ariely posits, it is incredibly difficult to detect it in ourselves. Sometimes we simply think we are furthering science by eliminating outliers that are hiding the significance of our results which we believe to be correct. It is difficult but necessary to take a step back and realize that it not for the benefit of science for us to do so, but for our own.

The situation is exacerbated by the media. By reporting medical “breakthroughs” and “miracles” in studies that sometimes weren’t even done in humans, science is portrayed as a lot more all-powerful than it actually is. This adds to the atmosphere of pressure for researchers to meet that same misleading bar.

Bias in science needs to be dealt with from square one. Rather than allow ourselves to fall prey to the pressures of the scientific community to publish and our own well-meaning intentions to illustrate hypotheses we believe should be true, we need to accept that sometimes science isn’t infallible, breakthroughs don’t happen as often as the media reports, and experiments that don’t yield significant results aren’t failures.

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