Over the past year, Nature has published a string of articles that highlight failures in the reliability and reproducibility of published research (collected and freely available at go.nature.com/huhbyr). The problems arise in laboratories, but journals such as this one compound them when they fail to exert sufficient scrutiny over the results that they publish, and when they do not publish enough information for other researchers to assess results properly.
From next month, Nature and the Nature research journals will introduce editorial measures to address the problem by improving the consistency and quality of reporting in life-sciences articles. To ease the interpretation and improve the reliability of published results we will more systematically ensure that key methodological details are reported, and we will give more space to methods sections. We will examine statistics more closely and encourage authors to be transparent, for example by including their raw data.
Central to this initiative is a checklist intended to prompt authors to disclose technical and statistical information in their submissions, and to encourage referees to consider aspects important for research reproducibility (go.nature.com/oloeip). It was developed after discussions with researchers on the problems that lead to irreproducibility, including workshops organized last year by US National Institutes of Health (NIH) institutes. It also draws on published concerns about reporting standards (or the lack of them) and the collective experience of editors at Nature journals.
The checklist is not exhaustive. It focuses on a few experimental and analytical design elements that are crucial for the interpretation of research results but are often reported incompletely. For example, authors will need to describe methodological parameters that can introduce bias or influence robustness, and provide precise characterization of key reagents that may be subject to biological variability, such as cell lines and antibodies. The checklist also consolidates existing policies about data deposition and presentation.
We will also demand more precise descriptions of statistics, and we will commission statisticians as consultants on certain papers, at the editor’s discretion and at the referees’ suggestion.
We recognize that there is no single way to conduct an experimental study. Exploratory investigations cannot be done with the same level of statistical rigour as hypothesis-testing studies. Few academic laboratories have the means to perform the level of validation required, for example, to translate a finding from the laboratory to the clinic. However, that should not stand in the way of a full report of how a study was designed, conducted and analysed that will allow reviewers and readers to adequately interpret and build on the results.
To allow authors to describe their experimental design and methods in as much detail as necessary, the participating journals, including Nature, will abolish space restrictions on the methods section.
To further increase transparency, we will encourage authors to provide tables of the data behind graphs and figures. This builds on our established data-deposition policy for specific experiments and large data sets. The source data will be made available directly from the figure legend, for easy access. We continue to encourage authors to share detailed methods and reagent descriptions by depositing protocols in Protocol Exchange (www.nature.com/protocolexchange), an open resource linked from the primary paper.
Renewed attention to reporting and transparency is a small step. Much bigger underlying issues contribute to the problem, and are beyond the reach of journals alone. Too few biologists receive adequate training in statistics and other quantitative aspects of their subject. Mentoring of young scientists on matters of rigour and transparency is inconsistent at best. In academia, the ever increasing pressures to publish and chase funds provide little incentive to pursue studies and publish results that contradict or confirm previous papers. Those who document the validity or irreproducibility of a published piece of work seldom get a welcome from journals and funders, even as money and effort are wasted on false assumptions.
Tackling these issues is a long-term endeavour that will require the commitment of funders, institutions, researchers and publishers. It is encouraging that NIH institutes have led community discussions on this topic and are considering their own recommendations. We urge others to take note of these and of our initiatives, and do whatever they can to improve research reproducibility.
Related links in Nature Research
If a job is worth doing, it is worth doing twice 2013-Apr-03
Independent labs to verify high-profile papers 2012-Aug-14
The case for open computer programs 2012-Feb-22
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Announcement: Reducing our irreproducibility. Nature 496, 398 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1038/496398a
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