The University of Virginia’s Centre for Open Science hosts The Reproducibility Project, a group of scientists with the aim of replicating the results reported in five large cancer studies. The researchers have been working on the project since 2011, however they have only been able to reproduce the results of two of the original studies.
“The idea here is to take a bunch of experiments and to try and do the exact same thing to see if we can get the same results,” Dr. Tim Errington, head of The Reproducibility Project, told BBC News. Since scientific papers contain detailed Material and Methods sections outlining the details of the original experiments, one would assume that following this recipe should produce similar results.
Unfortunately, Errington’s findings suggests a growing problem in the life science industry where irreproducible research may be misguiding further studies. “”It’s worrying because replication is supposed to be a hallmark of scientific integrity,” said Errington.
The journal, Nature conducted a survey last year which found that over 70 percent of researchers have, at one time or another, been unable to reproduce another’s results by conducting the same experiments. Most scientists believe that the problem isn’t a matter of the study authors presenting fraudulent data, but instead lies within the publishing process itself.
“What we see in the published literature is a highly curated version of what’s actually happened,” said Dr. Marcus Munafo, professor of biological psychology at Bristol University. “The trouble is that gives you a rose-tinted view of the evidence because the results that get published tend to be the most interesting, the most exciting, novel, eye-catching, unexpected results.”
There are many factors that contribute to this growing issue: funding bodies that want to see big returns on their investment, peer reviewed journals interested in publishing only the most exciting results, and research institutions that rely on major research projects to secure financial backing. “Everyone has to take a share of the blame,” said Dame Ottoline Leyser, director of the Sainsbury Laboratory at the University of Cambridge. “The way the system is set up encourages less than optimal outcomes.”
So how can we solve this problem? According to Nature, getting researchers to think about the reproducibility of their work could be the first step to addressing this issue. The prestigious journal has created a reproducibility checklist designed to encourage researchers to improve their study’s rigour before submitting their paper for publication.
“Replication is something scientists should be thinking about before they write the paper,” said Ritu Dhand, the editorial director at Nature. “It’s going to take a multi-pronged approach involving funders, the institutes, the journals and the researchers.”