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Science is Unreliable. What Can We Do About It?

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Science is Unreliable. What Can We Do About It?

Oct 31, 2017

There’s a real problem within the medical science community regarding reliability. Today, more and more science articles are being published, but many lack the reliability we can rely on. The Scope Radio’s Julie Kiefer talks with Melissa Rethlefsen and Melanie Lackey from University of Utah Eccles Health Science Library to discuss the problem of unreliability in modern science and the collaborative ways the University is working to address the problem.

Episode Transcript

Interviewer: Science is unreliable. We'll talk about what's being done about it next on The Scope.

Announcer: Examining the latest research and telling you about the latest breakthroughs. The Science and Research show is on The Scope.

Interviewer: Science is unreliable in so many ways, which is frankly depressing since we rely on science to get us closer to the truth. I'm talking with Melissa Rethlefsen and Mellanye Lackey from the Eccles Health Sciences Library at the University of Utah. So what is problem in general? I mean, what's happening because of these issues?

Melissa: What's really happening is that a lot of science is getting produced that is considered wasteful or is just not able to be replicated. This might have to do with the fact that someone didn't describe their methods adequately. It might have to do with the fact that there was a small sample of animals used in a pre-clinical study and that small sample made it so that there wasn't actually enough data to say that a drug worked or didn't. There's all sorts of different examples out there of why this is a problem, but basically the problem is that a lot of science is getting published and a lot of science is getting built upon that really isn't worthy of being published or built upon.

Interviewer: So here at the Eccles Health Sciences Library, I mean, I would say you're taking a leading role at least here in confronting this issue. What are some of the things that you're doing?

Melissa: Well we've done quite a few things and I think our biggest one has been really to try to raise awareness. So we started back in 2016 with a conference on research reproducibility and we realized right away that that wasn't really enough. We needed to keep going and to really get people engaged in this issue year round, not just at a one day event. So one thing that we have started to do is to create a research reproducibility coalition that meets regularly, that hopefully we are going to use to get ideas to be able to really change the whole atmosphere of this institution. We've only met once but I'm really hopeful. It's a really engaged group and I think that we have the potential to really create some institutional change or at least have some great ideas come out of that.

We're also creating a weekly series of talks which we are calling Grand Rounds Research Reproducibility, grand rounds being a sort of medical-ese talk for a lecture series. And those talks and discussions that we're going to have every week are with experts from across campus as well as we have some from the community who will be coming in to talk about their issues with research reproducibility and how they are combating them or taking them head on. So we're really excited to see those experts come.

Mellanye: I would say that a key to this is the coalition. We can't address this issue by ourselves and we don't want to be railing against it and shouting to empty spaces or black holes or walls. So bringing together this group of faculty from across campus will be really key in helping us get the issue out in the open and get it talking about and have a commitment to it that is really multidisciplinary, that really does cross between health sciences and academic affairs.

Melissa: But to bring together this group of people is going to be so helpful. Collaboration on any campus is key and I think that's going to be crucial for our success in leading the issue on this campus and ultimately we hope leading it nationwide.

Interviewer: And raising awareness is one thing, but actually getting people to change their behaviors is quite another. I'm just wondering if you have any thoughts about how to make that latter part happen.

Melissa: I think that's a very fair question, and right now I think raising awareness is definitely our major goal but we've already seen changes start to happen, which has been really exciting. So one of our attendees at the conference in November of 2016 came away from it and she changed the editorial practices at her journal because of it and instituted using reporting guidelines, which are tools that can help researchers publish their research more accurately and more completely so that it can be reproduced. So that was a really exciting outcome for me. We also have training on using electronic lab notebooks which can really help solve the problem of research disappearing off campus if someone leaves. We've been working on teaching research reproducibility skills like using GitHub and other online tools to document changes in code for biomedical informatics. We've done quite a few other practical tools and I think that we want to continue to do those.

Mellanye: Another one of things that we are actively doing is targeting the young researchers, like Melissa said, educating the next generation of researchers to come up and have good reproducibility habits rather than doing whatever it takes to get published or get through the project or get through the next grant. But to start them while they're young, before they develop those bad habits, and just having the vocabulary to talk about it and knowing that there are places on campus where it's safe to talk about it. I think those are also key.

Announcer: Interesting. Informative. And all in the name of better health. This is The Scope Health Sciences Radio.