28 October 2013

Research standards, reproducibility and disclosure

The story is from a year and a half ago, but I only heard about it today, via the LA Times and Slashdot. Researchers from Amgen attempted to reproduce results from fifty-three research papers and only succeded for six of them. They published a comment in Nature, arguing for higher standards in preclinical research. 

However, the authors gave no specific information on the said papers, and the contrast between their plea for reproducibility and this secretive behavior was not lost on the readers. One month later, Nature had to publish an editorial note explaining that this data would not be made available, since in some cases the Amgen researchers had to sign non-disclosure agreements in exchange for additional data (and research materials) on some of the publications.

The first –and most obvious– problem, is the comment being published in the absence of any substantiating information. In their note, the editors admit they required a lower standard of evidence for the comment (as opposed to a regular research paper), and this would probably have been acceptable, had the arrangement been made public from the beginning. Of course, the lack of details raises some more questions:
  • how were the fifty-three papers chosen? From the comment: " Fifty-three papers were deemed ‘landmark’ studies" with no further precisions.
  • what was the criterion for successful reproduction? The authors state: "The term ‘non-reproduced’ was assigned on the basis of findings not being sufficiently robust to drive a drug-development programme".
 A second, and (to me) much more serious problem, is that scientists (with, I assume, the agreement or even the assistance of their employers) can require non-disclosure agreements for helping reproduce their findings. What universities have this policy? I am more interested in this than in the identification of the irreproducible studies.

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