Barb's Blog

Standard: Gold or Salt?

A recent article in The Wall Street Journal states:

"Two years ago, a group of Boston researchers published a study describing how they had destroyed cancer tumors by targeting a protein called STK33. Scientists at biotechnology firm Amgen Inc. quickly pounced on the idea and assigned two dozen researchers to try to repeat the experiment with a goal of turning the findings into a drug.

"It proved to be a waste of time and money. After six months of intensive lab work, Amgen found it couldn't replicate the results and scrapped the project."

"I was disappointed but not surprised," says Glenn Begley, vice president of research at Amgen of Thousand Oaks, Calif. "More often than not, we are unable to reproduce findings" published by researchers in journals.

The article goes on:  

"There is also a more insidious and pervasive problem: a preference for positive results.

"Unlike pharmaceutical companies, academic researchers rarely conduct experiments in a "blinded" manner. This makes it easier to cherry-pick statistical findings that support a positive result. In the quest for jobs and funding, especially in an era of economic malaise, the growing army of scientists need more successful experiments to their name, not failed ones. An explosion of scientific and academic journals has added to the pressure."

But wait!  There’s more!

"Science publications are under pressure, too. The number of research journals has jumped 23% between 2001 and 2010, according to Elsevier, which has analyzed the data. Their proliferation has ratcheted up competitive pressure on even elite journals, which can generate buzz by publishing splashy papers, typically containing positive findings, to meet the demands of a 24-hour news cycle."

Dr. Alberts of Science acknowledges that journals increasingly have to strike a balance between publishing studies "with broad appeal," while making sure they aren't hyped.

If I ever believed the claim that medical research is done in an objective, impartial way, this article would stop me in my tracks.   

If a medical researcher wants to find a certain outcome isn’t it likely that he – even unintentionally – biases the outcome?  Doesn’t a cancer researcher want to find a cure for cancer?  Doesn’t a transplant doctor want to show the effectiveness of transplants?  Doesn’t a cochlear implant surgeon want to show the value of cochlear implants?  

Okay, fair enough, just because they care about these issues does not mean they are going to put the scientific method on the shelf.  But scientists make decisions every step of the way about the questions they ask, the data they study, the interpretations of their results, and their advice to the public based on their study.  Anyone reading about medical science and research must look beyond the words on the page to the context in which the research is conducted.

Pass me a grain of salt please, while I leave you with this observation from The Wall Street Journal article:  “Nobody gets a promotion from publishing a negative study.”

Copyright 2011.  Do not reproduce without permission.

© Barbara Raimondo 2015