I was invited to give a talk this fall on the wave of irreproducibility washing over the life science research landscape. I have to admit, though, it was with a range of emotions that I considered accepting this offer.
On one hand, I'm always interested in interacting with BioTechniques readers and authors, or any scientist working at the lab bench for that matter. Finding out more information on the techniques and methods driving science today, and the needs for the future, is something I have a true passion for and the reason that I do what I do on a daily basis. On the other hand, it is truly sad to me that there would even need to be a session at this conference devoted to a topic like irreproducibility.
As I contemplated whether I would (or even could) give such a talk, I started thinking about some possible topics. To me, true fraud is somewhat outside the scope of this discussion. While it can be argued that fraud is on the rise, leading to the increasing frequency in irreproducible results published today, there is no way to tell for sure if deliberate misconduct is on the upsurge. Today, we have sophisticated software to evaluate figures and images for manipulation, not to mention the internet, which enables everyone with a computer and some free time to examine articles for plagiarism or some other form of malfeasance. So, is there more fraud today, or are we simply better equipped to detect it? I don't know.
Most irreproducibility, I would guess, is due to other factors. Experiments are performed well, results are interpreted as thoroughly as possible, but in the end no one can replicate the findings. This is a situation that should not only interest all life scientists but scare them as well. Imagine that you do everything properly, check your controls, and report your methods as clearly as possible. But that antibody you used, was not as reliable as you thought. The validation was poor, and it is not specific for your protein of interest. Or that cell line did not behave as you expected. These are real problems, real issues for today's scientists. But such problems cannot be dealt with in a vacuum; solutions require multiple sources of input (researchers, suppliers, journals, and funding agencies).
Surprisingly, the more I think about this invitation, the less sad and confused I am. My talk should be only one facet of a larger discussion on the topic of irreproducibility. And as more researchers and administrators publicly address the issue, the life science community will be the beneficiary—increasing experimental rigor and creating standards might act to eliminate the fountain of irreproducibility. In the end, small talks can be strong starting points.