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How to improve our scientific practice?

Posted October 29, 2014
Picture: Scientists prepare for planet mars via the mojave. Image credit: woodleywonderworks via Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

Picture: Scientists prepare for planet mars via the mojave. Image credit: woodleywonderworks via Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

One of the founders of classical economics Adam Smith noticed that “before the invention of the art of printing, a scholar and a beggar seem to have been terms very nearly synonymous. The different governors of the universities before that time appear to have often granted licences to their scholars to beg.”

However, scientists managed to transform themselves from disrespected rascals to members of valued and well-funded elite.

Number of researchers and their papers is enormous: 25 000 000 articles have been published by 15 000 000 individuals between 1996 and 2011. Nonetheless, reliability of present day research is sometimes heavily criticized. One of the most prominent skeptics is John P. A. Ioannidis working at the Stanford University. In his new article he proposes, how to make our studies better.

“Currently, many published research findings are false or exaggerated, and an estimated 85% of research resources are wasted,” scholar says. But how this dramatic situation can be changed? He thinks that less advanced disciplines can take good example from various success stories. For instance, credibility of genetic and molecular epidemiology grew considerably, when its representatives started to do more large collaborative studies accompanied by good replications.

“Sharing of data, protocols, materials, and software has been promoted in several -omics fields, creating a substrate for reproducible data practices,” Ioannidis adds. Unfortunately, replication and sharing are not rewarded. Moreover, sometimes these practices are even penalized. Spread of them is halted by fears that other scientists will take over not only datasets, but funding as well.

Process of the science-funding should be considerably improved too. “For example, there is evidence that grant reviewers typically have only modest CVs and most of the top influential scientists don’t review grant applications and don’t get funded by government funds, even in the United States, which arguably has the strongest scientific impact at the moment than any other. Non-meritocratic practices, including nepotism, sexism, and unwarranted conservatism, are probably widespread,” Ioannidis claims.

Painful fact should be admitted that scientific enterprise is not merely the business of researchers nowadays. They are heavily influenced by expectations of various stakeholders. However, these expectations may not always contribute to the quality of the scholarship. For instance, stakeholders can press scientists to publish more. But increasing quantity does not mean improving quality. Therefore, motivations of diverse interest groups should be understood and their influence controlled.

Article: Ioannidis J.P.A., 2014, How to Make More Published Research True. PLoS Med 11(10): e1001747. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1001747, source link.

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