Why Do Journals Get It Wrong?

Why do studies end up with wrong findings? In fact, there are so many distorting forces baked into the process of testing the accuracy of a medical theory, that it’s harder to explain how researchers manage to produce valid findings, aside from sheer luck. To cite just a few of these problems:

Mismeasurement To test the safety and efficacy of a drug, for example, what researchers really want to know is how thousands of people will fare long-term when taking the drug. But it would be unethical (and illegal) to give unproven drugs to thousands of people, and no one wants to wait 20 years for results. So scientists must rely on animal studies, which tend to translate poorly to humans, and on various short-cuts and indirect measurements in human studies that they hope give them a good indication of what a new drug is doing. The difficulty of setting up good human studies, and of making relevant, accurate measurements on people, plagues virtually all medical research.

Confounders Study subjects may lose weight on a certain diet, but was it because of the diet, or because of the support they got from doctors and others running the study? Or because they knew their habits and weight were being recorded? Or because they knew they could quit the diet when the study was over? So many factors affect every aspect of human health that it’s nearly impossible to tease them apart and see clearly the effect of changing any one of them.

Publication bias Research journals, like newsstand magazines, want exciting stories that will have impact on readers. That means they prefer studies that deliver the most interesting and important findings, such as that a new treatment works, or that a certain type of diet helps most people lose weight. If multiple research teams test a treatment, and all but one find the treatment doesn’t work, the journal might well be interested in publishing the one positive result, even though the most likely explanation for the oddball finding is that the researchers behind it made a mistake or perhaps fudged the data a bit. What’s more, since scientists’ careers depend on being published in prominent journals, and because there is intense competition to be published, scientists much prefer to come up with the exciting, important findings journals are looking for—even if it’s a wrong finding. Unfortunately, as Ioannidis and others have pointed out, the more exciting a finding, the more likely it is to be wrong. Typically, something is exciting specifically because it’s unexpected, and it’s unexpected typically because it’s less likely to occur. Thus, exciting findings are often unlikely findings, and unlikely findings are often unlikely for the simple reason that they’re wrong.


Why do journals publish so many papers with wrong results (2/3rds wrong by some estimates)?

Folksonomies: research peer-review accuracy

/hobbies and interests/arts and crafts/jewelry making (0.544869)
/art and entertainment/books and literature/magazines (0.446871)
/health and fitness/weight loss (0.315609)

important findings (0.998342 (positive:0.725609)), wrong findings (0.986942 (negative:-0.753513)), important findings journals (0.970814 (neutral:0.000000)), human studies (0.935017 (positive:0.229698)), good human studies (0.922335 (neutral:0.000000)), Publication bias Research (0.917117 (neutral:0.000000)), multiple research teams (0.905282 (neutral:0.000000)), new treatment works (0.901199 (positive:0.321186)), wrong results (0.891647 (negative:-0.745256)), exciting findings (0.858437 (negative:-0.397399)), valid findings (0.852320 (negative:-0.371849)), unlikely findings (0.840809 (negative:-0.641138)), wrong finding (0.811994 (neutral:0.000000)), exciting stories (0.784384 (positive:0.593438)), sheer luck (0.766393 (positive:0.221928)), unproven drugs (0.756753 (negative:-0.528293)), indirect measurements (0.751331 (positive:0.229698)), medical theory (0.749382 (neutral:0.000000)), various short-cuts (0.747268 (positive:0.229698)), animal studies (0.742792 (neutral:0.000000)), good indication (0.742687 (positive:0.229698)), likely explanation (0.741051 (negative:-0.539470)), newsstand magazines (0.738139 (neutral:0.000000)), accurate measurements (0.737337 (positive:0.366095)), certain diet (0.728807 (negative:-0.269091)), new drug (0.728445 (positive:0.229698)), human health (0.726018 (negative:-0.668416)), medical research (0.725977 (negative:-0.307491)), oddball finding (0.724971 (negative:-0.539470)), certain type (0.724117 (neutral:0.000000))

Ioannidis:Person (0.702199 (neutral:0.000000)), 20 years:Quantity (0.702199 (neutral:0.000000))

Medicine (0.930206): dbpedia | freebase

 ‘Survival of the wrongest’
Periodicals>Journal Article:  Freedman, David H. (January 2, 2013), ‘Survival of the wrongest’, Columbia Journalism Review, Retrieved on 2013-01-18
  • Source Material [www.cjr.org]
  • Folksonomies: accuracy journalism veracity health news