‘Scientists Are Mostly Wrong’: Or Why Published Research Is Untrustworthy

  • Date: 29/07/17
  • Gunnar Lose & Niels Klarskov, Editorial, International Urogynecology Journal

“The attitude that scientists are always right should be changed; they are most often wrong. Instead of trying to make cosmetic changes to their results, they should openly and frankly recognize the weakness of the results.”

As much as 90% of the published medical information is flawed according to John Ioannidis, one of the true experts on credibility of medical research [1], and former BMJ editorin-chief, Richard Smith, has claimed that “most of what is published in journals is just plain wrong or nonsense.”

The poor quality of medical research is not a new criticism [2]; however, concern has been expressed within a broad field of specialties in parallel with reports that studies are fraught with problems including poor reproducibility [3]. Publishing research is complex. It includes a wide range of steps and the interaction of many collaborators (coauthors, sponsors, editors, reviewers and peers), and this may contribute to problems including scientific misconduct, methodological issues/errors and bias (Table 1).

Scientific misconduct

The extent of scientific misconduct is essentially unknown. The major three types of misconduct (falsification, fabrication and plagiarism) are categorized as “scientific dishonesty”. Minor breaches of “responsible conduct of research” (bad practice) include concealed double publication, dubious accreditation as author, “salami” publication etc. Retraction of scientific articles because of fraud has increased tenfold since 1975 [4], but such articles still make up less than 1‰ of the huge number of papers published annually in scholarly journals [5]. Of retracted scientific publications, a major proportion are retracted because of misconduct and another major proportion because of unintentional errors or untrustworthy data/interpretation [6]. The Lancet recently questioned the credibility of medical research, especially research from China, because of many retractions [7]. A remarkable study reported in Nature in 2005 indicated that manipulation of data (“gray zone” behavior) is common among scientists, and based on survey data on average 2% of scientists admit to having falsified research at least once and 34% admit other questionable research practices [8]. This is a very serious challenge to the integrity and reputation of science in general [9]. Although science has a tendency to be “self-correcting” over the long term, flawed papers often live on unnoticed, which is inappropriate and potentially damaging. In this context, it is unacceptable that scientific misconduct discovered by the US Food and Drug Administration is not reported to the public [10]. Basically, research should be founded on the sound principle of “responsible conduct of research” [11]. […]

Publication process

Journal editors and scientists are more interested in new results than in refuting of old results. This attitude inevitably leads to publication bias since trials with a statistically significant result are more likely to be published than those with a nonsignificant result. Sources of publication bias are many, but include failure to report “negative results”, and withholding data (sponsor priorities, personal investigator opinion, carelessness, lack of resources, etc.) […]

Conclusions

The present status of research that is “misleading, exaggerated or plain wrong” is reminiscent of the news media. The attitude that scientists are always right should be changed; they are most often wrong [1]! Instead of trying to make cosmetic changes to their results, they should openly and frankly recognize the weakness of the results. Researchers need to change from a “butterfly behavior” [24] to a more altruistic approach so that an issue (the “flower”) can be fully exploited in search of a breakthrough, before moving on to the next flower [24]. As pointed out by Douglas G. Altman in 1994 we still need “less research, better research and research done for the right reasons”.

Full paper

see also GWPF Report: Peer Review — Why Scepticism Is Essential

 

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