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NIH Tackles Irreproducibility

The federal agency speaks out about how to improve the quality of scientific research.

by Jef Akst
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Image credit: WIKIMEDIA, NCI, JOHN CRAWFORDLately the scientific community has been talking about the omnipresent problem of irreproducibility—the failure of researchers to replicate results in the published literature. This week in Nature, National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins and Principal Deputy Director Lawrence Tabak weighed in on this discussion, noting several ways in which the agency hopes to fix the problem.

“Reproducibility is potentially a problem in all scientific disciplines,” the duo wrote. “[T]he checks and balances that once ensured scientific fidelity have been hobbled.”

Collins and Tabak cited poor experimental design and a scientific culture that overvalues provocative statements and high-impact publications as contributors to the problem. Misconduct, they noted, is unlikely to be a main driver. “[F]raudulent papers are vastly outnumbered by the hundreds of thousands published each year in good faith,” they wrote.

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Among the suggested solutions is better training for young investigators on experimental design, with an emphasis on “frequently ignored” issues such as “blinding, randomization, replication, sample-size calculation and the effect of sex differences.” Starting later this year, such training will be mandatory for NIH intramural postdoctoral fellows, with corresponding materials to be posted on the agency’s website by the end of 2014. Moreover, the NIH officials said that the agency plans to institute a more stringent examination of methodological details during grant review and recommended the inclusion of more thorough descriptions of experimental setups in publications—something that Nature Publishing Group, Science Translational Medicine, and most recently Science, have all pledged to require of submissions to their journals. Also not to be forgotten is the importance of the vast amounts of research that go unpublished, Collins and Tabak added.

“As a funding agency, the NIH is deeply concerned about this problem,” they wrote, adding that “reproducibility is not a problem that the NIH can tackle alone. Consequently, we are reaching out broadly to the research community, scientific publishers, universities, industry, professional organizations, patient-advocacy groups and other stakeholders to take the steps necessary to reset the self-corrective process of scientific inquiry.”

-Originally published in our sister publication, The Scientist, on January 28, 2014