Monday, 18 January 2016
There is a lot of bad science around. A recent report by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics showed evidence of scientists increasingly “employing less rigorous research methods” in response to funding pressures. A 2009 survey found almost 2% of scientists admitting that they have fabricated results; 14% say that their colleagues have done so.
This is how I opened the posting 12 months ago and it would appear that things are getting worse rather than better. A recent report in The Times (January 5th 2016) suggests that public trust in science has become seriously undermined by work of poor quality, particularly in biomedical research. Editors of the journal PLOS Biology said that their discipline has a credibility crisis after several studies cast doubt on much publicly funded research. They concluded that there is an urgent need to improve the standards of research practice.
In an earlier article in The Times (December 4th 2015), scientific journals, universities and research institutes, funding bodies and scientists were accused of colluding in malpractice or misconduct by refusing to amend or retract research in which errors emerged. As many as 1 in 20 papers on biomedical science were said to contain errors or falsifications.
This is particularly worrying as peer-reviewed journals are meant to subject papers to scrutiny by experts and refuse to publish them if they fail to meet an expected threshold of scientific rigour. The report suggested that only a small proportion of biomedical research papers were subjected to genuine scrutiny before publication and concluded that the peer-review process was "clearly not fit for purpose".
Whether it is or not is something I do not want to rake up again, as the efficacy of peer-review was discussed at length on the blog in March 2011, the general consensus being that although the system is flawed in many respects, it is the best method that we have at present for assessing the merits of research. I have no intention of trying to reform the process, I will leave that to the next generation.
Fraud and bad practice is not limited to biomedical research of course, and I have been involved with many cases of plagiarism and other unethical practices while in charge of Minerals Engineering. The publish or perish mentality prevails in ours, as well as other areas of science and technology. Fortunately in our relatively small field these are fairly easy to spot, and the miscreants dealt with, ensuring that they do not have further dealings with the journal or any other Elsevier journals. But by far the biggest worry is bad practice due to ignorance of the proper way to collect and analyse data in mineral processing experiments, from simple lab tests up to full blown plant trials and the analysis of production data.
How do we deal with this? We are not talking about fraud here, but a lack of knowledge of the scientific method, by researchers and their supervisors, and also it has to be said, by members of the peer-review process, as papers with poor experimental design do slip through the net, finding their way into Minerals Engineering as well as other leading journals.
Editorial Board a person who has crusaded for better practice in the statistical design of testwork. Prof. Tim Napier-Munn travels the world preaching his gospel via his short courses, and I would highly recommend that all mineral processors at least take a look at the short and highly readable article that he recently wrote for the AusIMM. The message in this article should be one that is etched into the minds of all final year undergraduates and I further suggest that Tim's excellent book Statistical Methods for Minerals Engineers should be required reading for all young researchers (and their supervisors) embarking on programmes of research involving experimentation.
I will be advising all Minerals Engineering reviewers to be vigilant, on the look-out not only for fraud, which leads to blacklisting, but also poor experimental design, which should lead to article rejection. I also ask for your comments, suggestions and any advice that you can offer to try to ensure that mineral processing is one area of research which does not fall prey to the criticism publicly heaped on the biomedical sector.