Too many of the findings that fill the academic ether are the result of shoddy experiments or poor analysis (see article). A rule of thumb among biotechnology venture-capitalists is that half of published research cannot be replicated. Even that may be optimistic. Last year researchers at one biotech firm, Amgen, found they could reproduce just six of 53 “landmark” studies in cancer research. Earlier, a group at Bayer, a drug company, managed to repeat just a quarter of 67 similarly important papers. A leading computer scientist frets that three-quarters of papers in his subfield are bunk. In 2000-10 roughly 80,000 patients took part in clinical trials based on research that was later retracted because of mistakes or improprieties.The problems can all be traced back to the need to publish articles in science journals.
In the 1950s, when modern academic research took shape after its successes in the second world war, it was still a rarefied pastime. The entire club of scientists numbered a few hundred thousand. As their ranks have swelled, to 6m-7m active researchers on the latest reckoning, scientists have lost their taste for self-policing and quality control. The obligation to “publish or perish” has come to rule over academic life. Competition for jobs is cut-throat. Every year six freshly minted PhDs vie for every academic post. Nowadays verification (the replication of other people’s results) does little to advance a researcher’s career. And without verification, dubious findings live on to mislead. Careerism also encourages exaggeration and the cherry-picking of results. In order to safeguard their exclusivity, the leading journals impose high rejection rates: in excess of 90% of submitted manuscripts. The most striking findings have the greatest chance of making it onto the page. Little wonder that one in three researchers knows of a colleague who has pepped up a paper by, say, excluding inconvenient data from results “based on a gut feeling”.Or, as psychologist Brian Nosek put it, "There is no cost to getting things wrong. The cost is not getting them published."
The way out of this mess seems obvious to me: put an end to the science journals and replace them with much more open web sites. Instead of sexing up their work to get publication credit, scientists should post it online -- all of it, including their screw-ups. If that means universities need new ways to judge professors, well, tough. Scientific journals were a great way to share information in the nineteenth century, but now they are technologically obsolete and create more problems for science than they solve.