Why you should care about reproducible research

September 12, 2011

(This article was first published on Revolutions, and kindly contributed to R-bloggers)

This week's Economist has an in-depth article on the consequences of failures reproducible research, adding more detail to the report in the New York Times in July. Errors in data analysis by researchers at Duke University led to patients in clinical trials being assigned the wrong drug:

Dr Potti and his colleagues had mislabelled the cell lines they used to derive their chemotherapy prediction model, describing those that were sensitive as resistant, and vice versa. This meant that even if the predictive method the team at Duke were describing did work, which Dr Baggerly and Dr Coombes now seriously doubted, patients whose doctors relied on this paper would end up being given a drug they were less likely to benefit from instead of more likely.

One startling aspect of this saga is that the story only came to prominent attention after revelations that Dr Potti falsely claimed to be a Rhodes Scholar on his resume, despite repeated attempts by Baggerly (who presented the problems at the R BioConductor conference more than 2 years ago) to raise awareness of this serious problem.

[Baggerly] noted that in addition to a lack of unfettered access to the computer code and consistent raw data on which the work was based, journals that had readily published Dr Potti’s papers were reluctant to publish his letters critical of the work. Nature Medicine published one letter, with a rebuttal from the team at Duke, but rejected further comments when problems continued. Other journals that had carried subsequent high-profile papers from Dr Potti behaved in similar ways. … Eventually, the two researchers resorted to publishing their criticisms in a statistical journal, which would be unlikely to reach the same audience as a medical journal.

Said Dr Baggerly: “I find it ironic that we have been yelling for three years about the science, which has the potential to be very damaging to patients, but that was not what has started things rolling.”

The Economist: An array of errors

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