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Further Reading

DEPARTMENT: Biohazards

Getting Results

Credible Failures in Research

by Paige Comstock Cunningham

Article originally appeared in
Salvo 29

This spring, a co-author of a "startling" stem-cell study called for its retraction, but this was not an isolated incident.1 In 2005, South Korean scientist Dr. Hwang Woo Suk claimed to have successfully cloned human embryos for the purpose of extracting their stem cells. His study was withdrawn on suspicion of faked data and photos.2 Five years later, he again claimed to have cloned human embryos to produce stem cells, this time with high efficiency. That, too, was retracted after fooling even the reviewers at Science magazine.3

These embarrassments illustrate one of the obstacles to advancing credible scientific research: pressure on journals to publish positive, groundbreaking studies. In the blind peer review process, reviewers do not have access to the underlying data. They simply assess whether the data support the conclusions. Thus, faked photos or doctored data can go undetected without serious digging. It was "a cadre of well-trained young Koreans for whom it became almost a pastime" to turn up flaws who brought down Dr. Hwang.4

Another reality in the world of publishing science research is the favoring of studies with favorable results; they are three times more likely to get published as negative or inconclusive results.5 Yet knowing what does not work can be as valuable as building upon what does. Researchers can avoid heading down the same blind alley.

Credible research can also be hampered by career aspirations. Competition for grants is fierce, and those who want to stand out may—intentionally or not—shape their findings to meet expectations. The "publish or perish" academic culture is both well documented and lamented. One study of this phenomenon found that competitive academic environments increased both productivity and bias toward positive results. Researchers in some states published 95–100 percent of all studies with positive results.6

And frankly, some areas of research are "sexier" than others—though one critic claims that "the hotter the scientific field (with more scientific teams involved), the less likely the research findings are to be true."7 Breast cancer research, which has enormous celebrity support, snags $24,780 in federal dollars per patient death, while lung cancer garners a measly $1,249 per death, perhaps because some regard it as a "lifestyle cancer." (Only 3 percent of tobacco settlement money actually goes toward smoking prevention; the rest is used to balance state budgets.8)

In the private sphere, big pharma is understandably reluctant to continue funding costly drug trials that yield negative results. Other researchers are deprived of the benefit of learning which drugs are not promising. That situation may change, however, particularly if the Journal of Pharmaceutical Negative Results and the Journal of Negative Results in Biomedicine gain traction.9

Negative results, failures, blunders, and wrong turns are part of the messiness leading to major discoveries. The publication of negative findings sparked Einstein's special theory of relativity.10 The most credible research just might draw upon "failures." But faked data poisons the well.

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