Dr. Richard Horton (2015), Editor-in-Chief of The Lancet, wrote in 2015
“A lot of what is published is incorrect.” I’m not allowed to say who made this remark because we were asked to observe Chatham House rules.
The case against science is straightforward: much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue. Afflicted by studies with small sample sizes, tiny effects, invalid exploratory analyses, and flagrant conflicts of interest, together with an obsession for pursuing fashionable trends of dubious importance, science has taken a turn towards darkness.
As one participant put it, “poor methods get results”.
The apparent endemicity of bad research behaviour is alarming. In their quest for telling a compelling story, scientists too often sculpt data to fit their preferred theory of the world. Or they retrofit hypotheses to fit their data.
Journal editors deserve their fair share of criticism too. We aid and abet the worst behaviours.
Our acquiescence to the impact factor fuels an unhealthy competition to win a place in a select few journals. Our love of “significance” pollutes the literature with many a statistical fairy-tale. We reject important confirmations.
Journals are not the only miscreants. Universities are in a perpetual struggle for money and talent, endpoints that foster reductive metrics, such as high-impact publication.
National assessment procedures, such as the Research Excellence Framework, incentivise bad practices. And individual scientists, including their most senior leaders, do little to alter a research culture that occasionally veers close to misconduct.
Can bad scientific practices be fixed? Part of the problem is that no-one is incentivised to be right. Instead, scientists are incentivised to be productive and innovative.
Would a Hippocratic Oath for science help? Certainly don’t add more layers of research red-tape.
But as to precisely what to do or how to do it, there were no firm answers. Those who have the power to act seem to think somebody else should act first. And every positive action (eg, funding well-powered replications) has a counterargument (science will become less creative). The good news is that science is beginning to take some of its worst failings very seriously. The bad news is that nobody is ready to take the first step to clean up the system.