The Challenge of Reproducibility in the Biomedical Sciences


Randy Schekman
University Professor
Department of Molecular and Cell Biology
Howard Hughes Medical Institute
University of California, Berkeley

 

Science progresses by an iterative process whereby discoveries build upon a foundation of established facts and principles. The integrity of the advancement of knowledge depends crucially on the reliability and reproducibility of our published results. Although mistakes and falsification of results have always been an unfortunate part of the process, most viewed scientific research as self-correcting; the incorrect results and conclusions would inevitably be challenged and replaced with more reliable information. But what happens if the process is corrupted by systematic errors brought about by the misapplication of statistics, the use of unreliable reagents and inappropriate cell models, and the pressure to publish in the most selective venues? We may be facing this scenario now in areas of biomedical science in which claims have been made that a majority of the most important work in, for example, cancer biology is not reproducible in the hands of drug companies that would seek to rely on the biomedical literature for opportunities in drug discovery. 

Authoritative reports have appeared that suggest a pressure to publish flashy, positive results. These reports also suggest that as many as 75% of the key experiments of highly cited papers in cancer biology cannot be replicated under rigorous conditions in independent laboratories.

 

Self-correction of these errors may work in the long run, but short-term, we have a problem with the acceptance of science by a public that may not appreciate the scientific method. And equally importantly, we rely on the federal government for the support of our work, and the key legislative leaders may wonder whether the enormous public investment in biomedical science is wasted on sloppy or fraudulent work.
 

Highly selective journals bear some responsibility for the pressure scholars feel to publish their most important work.  I will discuss simple reforms that may help journals to influence the attitudes of scholars and of the editors who serve as the gatekeepers of our creative enterprise.

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