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The natural selection of good science


Scientists in some fields are concerned that many published results are false. Recent models predict selection for false positives as the inevitable result of pressure to publish, even when scientists are penalized for publications that fail to replicate. We model the cultural evolution of research practices when laboratories are allowed to expend effort on theory, enabling them, at a cost, to identify hypotheses that are more likely to be true, before empirical testing. Theory can restore high effort in research practice and suppress false positives to a technical minimum, even without replication. The mere ability to choose between two sets of hypotheses, one with greater prior chance of being correct, promotes better science than can be achieved with effortless access to the set of stronger hypotheses. Combining theory and replication can have synergistic effects. On the basis of our analysis, we propose four simple recommendations to promote good science.

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Fig. 1: How can a laboratory do better science?
Fig. 2: The evolution of good science.
Fig. 3: Synergy between replication and theory.
Fig. 4: Viability of good science across fields.

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Code availability

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The authors thank P. Smaldino for constructive feedback. The authors received no specific funding for this work.

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Authors and Affiliations



A.J.S. and J.B.P. conceived the project and developed the model. A.J.S. ran the simulations and analysed the model with input from J.B.P. A.J.S. and J.B.P. wrote the paper.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Alexander J. Stewart or Joshua B. Plotkin.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Peer review informationNature Human Behaviour thanks Timothy Parker, Jeffrey Schank and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

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Supplementary Figs. 1–12 and Supplementary Discussion.

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Stewart, A.J., Plotkin, J.B. The natural selection of good science. Nat Hum Behav 5, 1510–1518 (2021).

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