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Replicating Failure

Over the past five years, there has been a steady increase in the number of papers withdrawn from top journals – largely after the results were found to be impossible to replicate. This phenomenon has been dubbed a “reproducibility crisis.”

In government, forensic labs have been caught “dry labbing” data, while more than one pharmaceutical manufacturer has been shut down by the FDA after quality control labs have been found to be “testing to compliance” by throwing out data that missed the mark. In some cases, so-called “predatory journals” with weak or nonexistent peer review have been implicated. In others, scientific fraud has been discovered, careers ruined, and coworkers embarrassed.

In some fields of science, such as psychology and oncology, the challenges have been especially numerous. In biology, there have been incidental errors with cell lines and sourcing antibodies on which assays depend; quality was assumed but not validated, and instruments have been trusted but not calibrated. In other cases, solutions have been used long after their expiration date, or clinical trial data tampered with. All things considered, critics have been given every reason to be hard on scientists. Fake news annoys, but fake science destroys.

What is causing the crisis? An amalgamation of factors are at play – these include more complex science, more sophisticated instruments with which many users are unfamiliar, a highly competitive funding climate, pressure to publish positive results (and to do so ahead of competitor labs), and also – of course – pleasing the boss.

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About the Author

Peter Kissinger

Peter Kissinger is Professor, Brown Laboratory of Chemistry, Purdue University, and a founder of Bioanalytical Systems, Inc. (BASi), Prosolia, Inc., and Phlebotics, Inc. Indiana, USA.

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