Alarmingly, studies have shown that of the US$240 billion spent on biomedical research every year, up to 85% could be regarded as “wasted”. This is because, all too often, research into diseases and new treatments seems to be seriously flawed. To remedy the situation, which likely extends to many other disciplines, international initiatives are discussing the causes and potential solutions.
By Janna Hachmann
In 2014, a publication series by the renowned medical journal The Lancet sparked an international debate concerning the large percentage of resources (financial and otherwise) in the field of biomedical research that were considered as having been “wasted”. Essentially, the term “research waste” describes unusable scientific output. One indication of this issue is data that cannot be replicated.
Although the issue of research waste has been especially well studied in the biomedical field, it is not necessarily confined to this discipline. Producers of research waste can include researchers themselves but also scientific journal publishers, academic institutions, funders and regulatory agencies.
German researcher Gerd Antes, recently interviewed for a publication on research waste in the journal Public Health Forum, speaks of public funding as yielding a “highly inadequate return on investment”.
“Publish or perish”
Poor study design and inadequate statistical knowledge, as well as a lack of applicability and relevance, are among the suggested causes of research waste. Furthermore, today’s scientists are under a high pressure to publish, while at the same time, scientific journals prefer to publish “sensational” findings to increase their own impact. This combination has led to researchers prioritizing and aiming to generate spectacular, rather than reliable, results.
What are the possible solutions to this problem? One option would be to define broader and more diverse success criteria for researchers beyond the typically used journal impact factor (an increasingly controversial metric used as a measure of the importance of a publication). Furthermore, healthcare users and patients should be included in the identification and selection of the most relevant research questions. Researchers’ standard of education in experimental study design and statistics should be improved, and the registration of (clinical) studies made compulsory. Finally, researchers should be encouraged to share raw data, as well as to publish negative results and replication studies.
Change will not be easy and an improvement in the situation will only be possible through a combination of these measures and significant efforts by everyone involved. Considering what is at stake in the field of biomedicine, it would be unethical not to try.
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