Open science and modified funding lotteries can impede the natural selection of bad science

Authors : Paul E. Smaldino, Matthew A. Turner, Pablo A. Contreras Kallens

Assessing scientists using exploitable metrics can lead to the degradation of research methods even without any strategic behaviour on the part of individuals, via ‘the natural selection of bad science.’

Institutional incentives to maximize metrics like publication quantity and impact drive this dynamic. Removing these incentives is necessary, but institutional change is slow.

However, recent developments suggest possible solutions with more rapid onsets. These include what we call open science improvements, which can reduce publication bias and improve the efficacy of peer review. In addition, there have been increasing calls for funders to move away from prestige- or innovation-based approaches in favour of lotteries.

We investigated whether such changes are likely to improve the reproducibility of science even in the presence of persistent incentives for publication quantity through computational modelling.

We found that modified lotteries, which allocate funding randomly among proposals that pass a threshold for methodological rigour, effectively reduce the rate of false discoveries, particularly when paired with open science improvements that increase the publication of negative results and improve the quality of peer review.

In the absence of funding that targets rigour, open science improvements can still reduce false discoveries in the published literature but are less likely to improve the overall culture of research practices that underlie those publications.

URL : Open science and modified funding lotteries can impede the natural selection of bad science


The Natural Selection of Bad Science

Authors : Paul E. Smaldino, Richard McElreath

Poor research design and data analysis encourage false-positive findings. Such poor methods persist despite perennial calls for improvement, suggesting that they result from something more than just misunderstanding.

The persistence of poor methods results partly from incentives that favor them, leading to the natural selection of bad science. This dynamic requires no conscious strategizing—no deliberate cheating nor loafing—by scientists, only that publication is a principle factor for career advancement.

Some normative methods of analysis have almost certainly been selected to further publication instead of discovery. In order to improve the culture of science, a shift must be made away from correcting misunderstandings and towards rewarding understanding. We support this argument with empirical evidence and computational modeling.

We first present a 60-year meta-analysis of statistical power in the behavioral sciences and show that power has not improved despite repeated demonstrations of the necessity of increasing power.

To demonstrate the logical consequences of structural incentives, we then present a dynamic model of scientific communities in which competing laboratories investigate novel or previously published hypotheses using culturally transmitted research methods.

As in the real world, successful labs produce more “progeny”, such that their methods are more often copied and their students are more likely to start labs of their own.

Selection for high output leads to poorer methods and increasingly high false discovery rates. We additionally show that replication slows but does not stop the process of methodological deterioration. Improving the quality of research requires change at the institutional level.

URL : The Natural Selection of Bad Science