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Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Current publication practices distort science

PLoS The current system of publishing medical and scientific research provides "a distorted view of the reality of scientific data that are generated in the laboratory and clinic," says an article in this week's PLoS Medicine. In their essay, the team of researchers apply principles from the field of economics to present evidence consistent with a distortion. There is an "extreme imbalance," they say, between the abundance of supply (the output of basic science laboratories and clinical investigations) and the increasingly limited venues for publication (journals with sufficiently high impact). The result is that only a small proportion of all research results are eventually chosen for publication, and these results are unrepresentative of scientists' repeated samplings of the real world. The authors argue that there is a moral imperative to reconsider how scientific data are judged and disseminated.

Why current publication practices may distort science. 2008 PLoS Med 5(10): e201
The current system of publication in biomedical research provides a distorted view of the reality of scientific data that are generated in the laboratory and clinic. This system can be studied by applying principles from the field of economics. The “winner’s curse,” a more general statement of publication bias, suggests that the small proportion of results chosen for publication are unrepresentative of scientists’ repeated samplings of the real world. The self-correcting mechanism in science is retarded by the extreme imbalance between the abundance of supply (the output of basic science laboratories and clinical investigations) and the increasingly limited venues for publication (journals with sufficiently high impact). This system would be expected intrinsically to lead to the misallocation of resources. The scarcity of available outlets is artificial, based on the costs of printing in an electronic age and a belief that selectivity is equivalent to quality. Science is subject to great uncertainty: we cannot be confident now which efforts will ultimately yield worthwhile achievements. However, the current system abdicates to a small number of intermediates an authoritative prescience to anticipate a highly unpredictable future. In considering society’s expectations and our own goals as scientists, we believe that there is a moral imperative to reconsider how scientific data are judged and disseminated.