A new mathematical model by David R. Grimes, Chris T. Bauch and John P.A. Ioannidis suggests that a bias by journals towards studies with positive findings is undermining the trustworthiness of published science.
The findings published on the bioRxiv preprint server are a first step in measuring how factors such as competition for funding and bias towards novel findings influence the quality of science published in top-tier journals. Publishing research in high-impact journals is integral to climbing the career ladder and obtaining funding. Thus, the pressure to publish findings may be eroding the quality of research, leading to a growing concern that scientific research is in a reproducibility crisis and that many published studies cannot be replicated.
To find out which factors shape the trustworthiness of published research, Grimes and colleagues constructed a model of how researchers fare when funding is awarded based on the number of papers published. The theoretical model categorized researchers into diligent, careless and ethical groups to see how different behaviors gain advantage under various conditions. The results of this analysis suggest that trustworthiness of published science in a given field is strongly influenced by the false positive rate and the pressures from journals for positive results, and that decreasing available funding has negative consequences for the resulting trustworthiness. In this scenario, increased competition leads to more irreproducible science being published than diligent research.
Based on this theoretical model and in case false positives were very common in a specific field of research, unethical and careless researcher categories were allocated more funding than the diligent groups. When the authors changed the journal bias towards publishing only positive results, the model showed that fraudulent and falsely positive research was likely to be rewarded at the expense of reproducible science.
To help boost the scientific rigor of published research, the authors proposed strategies to combat propagation of irreproducible science, including increasing fraud detection and awarding diligence.