Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Arguments for Journals of Replication

In today's xkcd, a collection of hypothetical headlines are given, all of which would spell trouble for science as a whole. Also, these headlines all have to do with replicating experiments. The only fictional part of (most of) these headlines is that they're showing up in the news, because this is an old problem. Given that new journals are frequently being made as fields evolve and grow, it's surprising to not find any journals of replication and verification, because having such journals could help make science more honest.

Creating and contributing to journals dedicated to replicating, verifying, and assessing work in a field is a worthwhile endeavour. Here's why:

Primary Motivation - Having a journal of replication in a field would implicitly improve the quality of research across that field. It would do this by effectively putting a bounty on bad research by offering a publication opportunity for addressing flaws. It also provides an incentive for a team that 'gets there second' to publish, which could remove some of the unscientific competitiveness of people working towards the same goal. Finally, it provides relatively easy publication opportunities for people wishing to do the work that makes a field's body of work more cohesive by repeating key experiments or by conducting meta-studies.

Assertion 1 - Replication has high scientific value: Consider an experiment done twice, in two independent labs. It may not produce as much new information as two different experiments, but the information it does provide would be of a higher quality. That's what scientific journals are supposed to do - focus on quality. Large volumes of low quality information can be found anywhere.

Assertion 2 - Replication is easy and safe: Assuming that the method have been outlined well, someone trying to replicate an experiment can skip past a lot of the planning and false starts of the original researcher. The second research team even has the first one to ask questions. It's safe in that the chance of a new discovery, and hence publication delays, is low. This makes it suitable for the sort of mass produced work that can be outsourced to graduate students with minimal degree hiccups.

Assertion 3 - A replication journal has reward potential for contributors: Logically, most replication papers fall into two categories: Refutation or verification. If research is verified, the original researchers gain prestige and a citation, and the replicators gain a publication. In future work, many groups mentioning the original work will want to cite both papers because together they make a stronger argument. If the research if refuted, at best it could spark interest in 'tiebreaker' work by a 3rd research party, which would cite both (positively, if everything was done honestly), and at worst the original work dies early where it would or should have anyway, and the replicators establish their reputation for rigor.

Assertion 4
- A replication journal has reader appeal: If someone is reading a research paper, they may be interested how credible the work is after it has been subject to public scrutiny. A replication journal appropriate to the paper's field would be a good first place to look because it would save the reader the trouble of filtering through work that cited the paper in question or looking for otherwise related work that may lend to or take credence from the paper. In short, a replication journal would offer the same service to readers that review sites offer to consumers of more commercial goods.

Assertion 5 - A replication journal would be easy to administer: Aside from papers on related verification methods, all the relevant submissions to such a journal would be adhere to specific formulae - they would either be direct replications or metastudies. Hopefully, this would make the editing and review work of these papers easier because most viable papers would look the same: Introduction of the work to be replicated, comparison of methods, comparison of results, short discussion. Criteria for publication would have few ambiguities that require editorial decision-making.