Sloppiness vs Reproducibility

I’m not a big fan of reproducibility projects. Shoddy papers shouldn’t be tolerated, but the truth is that sometimes rigorously done research isn’t reproducible — and when that happens, science gets interesting. It should go without saying that a peer-reviewed paper isn’t a guarantee of truth. If done properly, a paper is a record of a rigorous attempt to discover something about the world, no more, no less. What we believe about nature should reflect the accumulated evidence of many researchers and many papers, and that means the scientific literature should reflect our latest tentative, bleeding-edge thinking, even at the risk of being wrong. It’s counterproductive to hold up publication until some other lab reproduces your result, or to retract papers that don’t hold up, unless they had clear methodological flaws or artifacts that should have been caught in review.

Two recent articles capture what I think is the right attitude on reproducibility. First, as David Allison and his colleagues write, as a community of researchers, editors, and reviewers, we’re not doing as well as we should be when it comes to meeting high standards for best statistical and other methodological practices:

 In the course of assembling weekly lists of articles in our field, we began noticing more peer-reviewed articles containing what we call substantial or invalidating errors. These involve factual mistakes or veer substantially from clearly accepted procedures in ways that, if corrected, might alter a paper’s conclusions.

There is no excuse for this kind of sloppiness.

On the other hand, here is Columbia’s Stuart Firestein:

The failure to replicate a part or even the whole of an experiment is not sufficient for indictment of the initial inquiry or its researchers. Failure is part of science. Without failures there would be no great discoveries.

So yes, let’s clean up science by rooting out obvious “invalidating practices” that all too often plague papers in journals at all tiers. But let’s not be naive about how science works, and what the scientific literature is supposed to be. To paraphrase what  I wrote recently, if some of our studies don’t turn out to be wrong, than we’re not pushing hard enough at the boundaries of our knowledge.

Author: Mike White

Genomes, Books, and Science Fiction

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