Is science self-cleansing? An article in the “Academische Boekengids” discussing report cie. Schuyt

Earlier I wrote about the “Adviescommissie onderzoeksgegevens in de wetenschap van de KNAW” and their report “Zorgvuldig en integer omgaan met wetenschappelijke onderzoeksgegevens”. This report induced a discussion in the March 2013 edition of the Academische Boekengids .

Three scientist give their vision: Miedema (dean of Medicine at the UMCU) Vandenbroucke (KNAW professor and professor of epidemiology at the LUMC, member of committee Schuyt) and Paul (professor of secularization studies in Groningen). Important to note is that the contradiction between the authors was known beforehand.

Miedema identifies a change in science, especially medical and social science, in which economic and social forces influence science and scientists. These forces have led to a ‘system failure’ of science, leading to shoddy science or in his words ‘post academic science’. Miedema argues that these changes cannot be undone and certain measures need to be taken to correct this system failure. What measures? Miedema points toward Quality Assurance and Quality Control (QA/QC) making a comparison with so called pharmaceutical research embedded within Good Clinical Practice (GCP). This should be done by governments, universities and funding bodies. Interestingly, he leaves scientist out of this list. And what does Miedema think of the report of the committee? He believes the vision of the report is based on the old idea of science where all scientist are directly held accountable by peer pressure, a vision that according to Miedema is not valid in this day and age.

Vandenbroucke points out an error in the argumentation: Miedema targets post academic science. Vandenbroucke agrees that this is a problem, but not the problem discussed by the committee. Their task was to see how data during and after research should be treated in order to keep science workable without to many hiccups and problems. The committee provides some answers but one of the main themes is that scientist should self-regulate, for they are the only experts in this area. This is in contrast to who Miedema who abhors the idea of self-regulation: science is not science anymore, so how can scientist self-regulate with all these strong forces that are incomprehensible to grasp for a simple scientist. Vandenbroucke counteracts Miedema by explaining that his vision of science (science is the search for truth) is not at odds with the problems that arise with post academic science (science is a complex social construct in which forces other than the truth have a big influence). Even more: these two notions can coexist, a concept first noted by Stephen Jay Gould.

Paul tries to reconcile the two previous writers: he agrees with Miedema that in earlier times the scientist was appreciated for his behavior as a person, whereas this view seems to be outdated in this day and age. But Paul also approaches the problem from the other side: the solution of the problems that come with post academic science calls for strong personalities that can counter unwanted forces that trouble science. Paul mentions the work of the science historian which he – ought enough in this context- announces as an ‘honored scientist’ (Dutch: gelauwerde wetenschapper) who published his ‘handsome study’ (Dutch: fraaie studie).

So what are the suggested solutions? Because the authors disagree on the origins of the problem, their solution also differ. Especially Vandenbroucke and Miedema find themselves on first glance diametrically opposed to one other. Vandenbroucke wants to start a discussion bottom up on what it is to be a good scientist, whereas Miedema wants top down QA and QC. These ideas are not new. For example, Jacobus Lubsen also brought this concept in an article in the NRC of December of 2011. Quality control and forensic statistics should increase the detection rate of wrongdoing and should therefore be instituted. I responded to this article with a small letter to the NRC in which I state that complete control is difficult and expensive and often only identifies shoddy and fraudulent science with hindsight. Additionally it will have a preventive effect on bad science, but will it have such an effect on fraud? After all, other fields that have huge governance structures such as banking and accountancy also have their fraud scandals. Even more, the frequency of sloppy science is hardly affected by these measures. A better way to prevent both sloppy and fraudulent science is, I believe, a better training of young scientist. By introducing young scientist to the key concepts of scientific conduct, creating a critical but non-repressive atmosphere, perhaps even in several research groups to prevent tunnel vision of individuals, will lead to an increased informal control and a decrease in sloppy and shoddy science. The committee also mentions this concept and calls this “increasing peer pressure” and puts scientist at the helm of this operation.

It will not surprise you that I agree with Vandenbroucke for the most part. But I also see merit in the argumentation of Miedema. Perhaps I agree with both to some extent because they address two different concepts: science is the quest for knowledge and based on epistemic virtues. Self-regulation by education of young aspiring scientist in a positive but critical atmosphere will increase the quality of research over time. But science is also a social construct and scientist need, besides guidance by peers, governance and regulations for certain scenarios: the cases Stapel and Poldermans as well as the previously discussed book ‘Bad Pharma’ by Ben Goldacre are examples why this might be true. Besides informal peer review and guidance, an extended system of checks and balances, GCP or not, might help to keep colleagues accountable for their work. Science in itself is a system of checks and balances, but this system might be expanded with some form of regulation and standardization with efficacy and efficiency kept in mind. But most of all, now is the time train the young.

– update on 25/3/2013: an interview with both JvdB and FM was published in the NTVG. Together with the editor-in-chief they discuss performing research, obtaining a PhD and publishing your results. click here for the pdf (NTVG website, in Dutch)