Why It's Awesome These Scientists Failed To Replicate Their Research

Sarah Brown-Schmidt and Sid Horton published results damaging their earlier work. And their peers are praising them for it.

Wrong Way
LincolnGroup11 via Wikimedia Commons

Science chases progress. Researchers live under pressure from grant agencies, their peers, and the public to produce exciting results. New finds make headlines; checking old work usually does not. But when a recent study of human behavior by Sarah Brown-Schmidt and Sid Horton failed to reproduce a result from the authors' earlier research, they published a paper in the online journal PLOS ONE saying so. The response has been almost unanimously positive.

The researchers got a celebratory write-up from the journal (that topped Reddit's r/science section Tuesday) for their trouble:

Considering our current scientific environment, in which the most novel, positive findings are lauded, many researchers might hesitate to report a failed self-replication for fear of interfering with their research trajectory or compromising their reputation. However, Brown-Schmidt and Horton (2014) has served as an exemplar of transparency in scientific reporting, and the authors’ open sharing of their null findings has been received with overwhelming positivity from the scientific community.

Verification and reproducibility are basic tenets of scientific research. Old results are rejected all the time but usually not by the scientists who found them in the first place. A survey of 53 outlandish claims in clinical cancer research published in Nature in 2012 only managed to replicate six studies' original results. (That shocking ratio is a product of the chosen studies and the unpredictability of cancer research. Other fields are far more consistent.)

In general, the scientific community is vigilant about weeding out bad research from its ranks. It makes sense then that researchers who take the extra step of shooting down their own work recieved this response.