How NOT to handle the reproducibility crisis in science

Contributed by Dr. Ariel Fernandez Stigliano

Virtually everybody recognizes that science is facing a reproducibility crisis. Whenever a result elicits attention, be it because it is published in a high-impact journal, or better still because it is important, there is a high likelihood that others will attempt to reproduce it. They often fail, disturbingly often. Fortunately, this time around, the science establishment appears to be better prepared to handle the crisis and not let journalists and outsiders, especially the angry mob of Retraction Watch(ers), run the agenda for them. Thus, the US National Academy of Sciences has appointed a panel to assess the situation, while the Royal Academy of Arts and Sciences of the Netherlands (KNAW) has already issued a report and made a pronouncement.

KNAW
Logo for the Royal Academy of Sciences of the Netherlands

In my modest opinion, the KNAW report could not be crasser. It proposes that considerable expenditures (between 5 and 10% of research funding) be destined to reproduce published scientific results.

The key question here is: who on earth is going to get motivated to conduct non-original research?  In today’s reality, the only valid motivation I can think of would be that the result under scrutiny is of fundamental value to the researcher and at the same time useful to further his or her research agenda. That is why the alleged STAP fabrication of Haruko Obokata and the late Yoshiki Sasai seemed so colossally stupid in retrospect: The result appeared to be so simple and so important that there surely would be legions of stem-cell researchers eager to reproduce it. How could Obokata get blindfolded by her own ambition in this way? The story had all the elements of a greek tragedy.

Haruko Obokata
Haruko Obokata as the STAP tragedy began to unfold.

There are of course a few people, like Joshua L. Cherry, who tend to obsessively invest in other researcher’s downfall (see Cherry’s frantic exchange with Prof. John Ioannidis), who would be also motivated to get involved in doing non-original research, but that would be for entirely the wrong reasons.

 

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