Byline: Trevor Butterworth
Is most scientific research factually distorted?
There is, writes Daniele Fanelli in a recent issue of Nature, something rotten in the state of scientific research--"an epidemic of false, biased, and falsified findings" where "only the most egregious cases of misconduct are discovered and punished." A research fellow at the Institute for the Study of Science, Technology and Innovation at the University of Edinburgh, Fanelli is a leading thinker in an increasingly alarming field of scientific research: one that seeks to find out why it is that so much scientific research turns out to be wrong.
For a long time the focus has either been on industry funding as a source of bias, particularly in drug research, or on those who deliberately commit fraud, such as the spectacular case of Diederik Stapel, a Dutch social psychologist who was found to have fabricated at least 55 research papers over 20 years. But an increasing number of studies have shown that flawed research is a much wider phenomenon, especially in the biomedical sciences. Indeed, the investigation into Stapel also blamed a "sloppy" research culture that often ignored inconvenient data and misunderstood important statistical methods. In a now-famous 2005 paper, Stanford University's John Ioannidis, a medical mathematician, laid down a statistical gauntlet by arguing that most published research findings were false.
"There's little question that the [scientific] literature is awash in false findings--findings that if you try to replicate you'll probably never succeed or at least find them to be different from what was initially said," says Fanelli. "But people don't …