Frustration with published results that can’t be reproduced, and journals that don’t seem to care

December 4, 2016

(This article was originally published at Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science, and syndicated at StatsBlogs.)


Thomas Heister writes:

Your recent post about Per Pettersson-Lidbom frustrations in reproducing study results reminded me of our own recent experience that we had in replicating a paper in PLOSone. We found numerous substantial errors but eventually gave up as, frustratingly, the time and effort didn’t seem to change anything and the journal’s editors quite obviously regarded our concerns as a mere annoyance.

We initially stumbled across this study by Collignon et al (2015) that explains antibiotic resistance rates by country level corruption levels as it raised red flags for an omitted variable bias (it’s at least not immediately intuitive to us how corruption causes resistance in bacteria). It wasn’t exactly a high-impact sort of study which a whole lot of people will read/cite but we thought we look at it anyways as it seemend relevant for our field. As the authors provided their data we tried to reproduce their findings and actually found a whole lot of simple but substantial errors in their statistical analysis and data coding that lead to false findings. We wrote a detailled analyis of the errors and informed the editorial office, as PLOSone only has an online comment tool but doesn’t accept letters. The apparent neglect of the concerns raised (see email correspondence below) led us to finally publish our letter as an online comment at PLOSone. The authors’ responses are quite lenghty but do in essence only touch on some of the things we criticize and entirely neglect some of our most important points. Frustratingly, we finally got an answer from PLOSone (see below) that the editors were happy with the authors’ reply and didn’t consider further action. This is remarkable considering that the main explanatory variable is completely useless as can be very easily seen in our re-analysis of the dataset (see table 1 ).

Maybe our experience is just an example of the issues with Open-Access journals, maybe of the problem of journals generally not accepting letters, or maybe just that a lot of journals still see replications and criticism of published studies as an attack on the journal’s scientific standing. Sure, this paper will probably not have a huge impact, but false findings like these might easily slip into the “what has been shown on this topic” citation loop in the introduction parts.

I would be very interested to hear your opinion on this topic with respect to PLOS journals, its “we’re not looking at the contribution of a paper, only whether its methodologically sound” policy and open access.

My reply: We have to think of the responsibility as being the authors’, not the journals’. Journals just don’t have the resources to adjudicate this sort of dispute.

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