Are articles in top journals more likely to be wrong?

A Greek epidemiologist makes the striking claim that articles in top journals are more likely to be wrong than ones in lesser ones:

IN ECONOMIC theory the winner’s curse refers to the idea that someone who places the winning bid in an auction may have paid too much. Consider, for example, bids to develop an oil field. Most of the offers are likely to cluster around the true value of the resource, so the highest bidder probably paid too much.

The same thing may be happening in scientific publishing, according to a new analysis. With so many scientific papers chasing so few pages in the most prestigious journals, the winners could be the ones most likely to oversell themselves—to trumpet dramatic or important results that later turn out to be false. This would produce a distorted picture of scientific knowledge, with less dramatic (but more accurate) results either relegated to obscure journals or left unpublished. . .

The assumption is that, as a result, such journals publish only the best scientific work. But Dr Ioannidis and his colleagues argue that the reputations of the journals are pumped up by an artificial scarcity of the kind that keeps diamonds expensive. And such a scarcity, they suggest, can make it more likely that the leading journals will publish dramatic, but what may ultimately turn out to be incorrect, research.

Dr Ioannidis based his earlier argument about incorrect research partly on a study of 49 papers in leading journals that had been cited by more than 1,000 other scientists. They were, in other words, well-regarded research. But he found that, within only a few years, almost a third of the papers had been refuted by other studies. For the idea of the winner’s curse to hold, papers published in less-well-known journals should be more reliable; but that has not yet been established.

I’m not familiar with Ioannidis’s research, so I can’t comment specifically, but there’s some room for skepticism. There are refutations and there are refutations. Did the refutations of these papers refute their specific findings, or the more general conclusions they drew from those findings? If it’s the latter, one could argue that there’s really no problem.

Still, it’s good to work in a field where you can prove your results with mathematical certainty (and, increasingly, with mechanical verification).

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