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April 19, 2012 no comments

Is academic research finally coming of age?

DrugBaron has been concerned about the damage that failures in the system of publishing academic research is doing to the global pharmaceutical industry (and to much else besides) long before it became fashionable.  In the six months since  ‘Rotten Foundations‘ was published here, we have seen an explosion in studies demonstrating the lack of reproducibility of almost everything emerging from the global academic endeavour.

Along with lack of reproducibility, the other big concern has been positive publication bias.  Exciting data supporting a proposition has, traditionally, been easier to publish in a good journal, and indeed many negative studies that call into question an established hypothesis fail to be published at all.

But a review of the table of contents for Nature on 19th April 2012 finally gives cause for tentative optimism. Nature is one of a handful of pre-eminent scientific journals, and few would doubt the prestige of articles published in its respected pages.  In just one issue (number 7394) there are three letters whose focus is entirely negative data, in three different scientific fields.

Treiber and colleagues show that the supposed ‘magneto-sensory’ neurons in the beak of birds thought to be responsible for their homing ability are in fact iron-rich macrophages.  The data blows a big hole in the well-accepted idea that we understand the molecular basis for magneto-location in birds.

Then the “IceCube Collaboration” pour  cold-water (appropriately enough) on the idea that “fireballs” of gamma-ray bursts are responsible for generating very energetic cosmic rays.

And Som and colleagues take a huge step towards dismantling the most widely held theory in earth sciences that high concentrations of greenhouse gases led to the warming of the early earth 2-3 billion years ago when the sun was 20% dimmer than it is now.  An elegant analysis of fossilised imprints of raindrops that fell 2.7 billion years ago lets them provide estimates of the density of the atmosphere at that time.

Exciting as each of these negative conclusions may be to those in their individual fields, the part that should grab the attention of every scientist was the coincidence of three negative findings gaining such prominence in the scientific literature.  For sure, even three swallows don’t make a summer, but perhaps the academic community itself as well as those guardians of the megaphone, the journal editors, are realising that the positive publication bias devalues the entire co-operative academic endeavour.

Lets hope this is the first step on the long road to seeing academic publishing re-establishing its status as the cutting-edge of human knowledge.

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