Earlier this year, science hit the headlines for the wrong reasons. A high profile piece of stem cell research, published in Nature and initially hailed as breakthrough work, attracted a different kind of attention when people started asking questions about the underlying science. The study, conducted by a research team in Japan, claimed to identify a novel means of creating pluripotent cells with numerous applications in biomedical research and clinical transplants. But very soon after it was published, talk began of flawed data and manipulated images; 12 independent research teams found they were unable to reproduce the group’s results. These rumblings came to a head at the start of this month when the authors agreed to for the paper to be withdrawn, paving the way for one of the most high profile retractions of recent years.
Anyone who follows science may have the impression that cases like this are becoming more common. These stories are often accompanied by commentary decrying the effectiveness of peer review and posing soul-searching questions about research integrity and quality in the sciences. Are these concerns well founded? This is what the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, along with colleagues in the learned societies, is currently seeking to uncover.
Reproducibility and peer review were just some of the issues discussed at two discussion events on the culture of scientific research last week. These were the first in a series of events we’re running at universities around the country this summer as part of the Council’s project exploring issues affecting research culture in the UK. The London event, which was co-hosted with University College London, attracted scientists from a range of fields, as well as students, science policy makers and members of the public who came together to talk about how these issues might be impacting on the ethics and quality of science the UK produces, and what we should be doing about them. Phillip Campbell, editor of science journal Nature, was on the panel and talked about the importance of reproduction in science, pointing to a recent study which found that just 11% of 53 pieces of published science was reproduced when tested. He agreed that publishers and funders should be addressing these issues – but highlighted particularly the role of universities in encouraging robust science. Geraint Rees, Director of the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, raised important questions about increasing volumes of science which need to be conducted, reviewed and read by time-pressed academics. And Giovanna Tinetti, Professor of Astrophysics at UCL, talked about the influence of growing trends towards ‘big science’ projects, like the James Webb Space Telescope, on the nature of contemporary research funding.
The audience in London found plenty of other things to talk about too – participants asked questions about improving the ways that scientists from different fields interact and defeating the challenge of ‘silo working’, the need to acknowledge the value of science teaching and the influence of the Government’s ‘impact agenda’ (requests that scientists demonstrate how their research has economic or societal effects) in assessing university research departments. Audience members delved deeper into issues around reproduction, suggesting that the thirst for novelty and incentives embedded in funding and professional structures may be discouraging important work. Participants also made comments about the importance of citizen science and the role of the public in scrutinising scientific results and the discussion later turned to alternative publishing models and the potential of open access to change the way science is conducted.
These and other topics cropped up in the discussion event at the University of Sheffield last Wednesday too. Publishing and publication ethics were key themes here as well, and we had panellist David Grundy, Head of Biomedical Science at Sheffield University, speaking about his experiences both as an editor and researcher. He singled out issues around authorship credits and fairness as an area of concern, given the key role that publications play in science careers. Linda Evans, Professor of Leadership and Professional Learning at Leeds University expanded on these themes and told us about some of her own research looking at the influence of journals and perceptions around the importance of impact factors in science publishing. NIH Research Fellow Chris Littlewood injected a note of optimism, stressing the value of supportive funders in maintaining a healthy research environment.
Peer review was a key topic addressed in the debate in Sheffield. Participants shared stories of submitting papers to journals which were (they suspected) reviewed by direct competitors and the audience debated the problems this could raise around conflicts of interest and fair assessment. Part of the issue here was that scientists mostly aren’t told who is appraising their work but are left to read between the lines when presented with sometimes scathing review reports. The debate revealed interesting differences across distinct fields of science, with some areas described as supportive and others ‘brutal’.
The discussion moved onto the pros and cons of anonymity in peer review, with a number of participants expressing doubts about the fairness of giving reviewers such high levels of power over other researchers’ work, with minimal accountability. On the other hand, some felt that anonymity can create space for researchers early on in their careers to honestly critique the work of more established scientists – and protect them from what might be undue criticisms based on their juniority. Conflicts of interest in peer review can work both ways too, we heard. Whilst some scientists might be tempted to take advantage of the power to undermine rival scientists’ work, others may feel under pressure from colleagues or peers to return favours.
We’ll be continuing to talk about these issues at our other events throughout the summer and are looking forward to hearing what else UK scientists have to say….