Research is only as good as the methods researchers, peer reviewers, and publishers use. Technology advances so quickly that it’s easy for those tools to become outdated. When researchers use older means, they’re not taking advantage of the latest developments, which can hinder results. Using outdated devices means they can also reduce the chances other researchers will be able to reproduce their results. This lack of reproducibility is causing a crisis for researchers as well as publishers.
Outdated research tools undermine science
Obsolete research mechanisms are not unique to any one branch of science or academics. Their use is widespread. Researchers get comfortable using particular methods and sometimes aren’t aware newer versions exist. The amount of time that passes from starting research to publishing results exacerbates the issue. In fact, it can take years. During this time, researchers’ tools may undergo several updates, or new and better software products may become available. Researchers tend to settle for familiar methods because they don’t want to skew in-process results or have to begin their research anew with different means.
According to The Scientist, Lior Pachter, a computational biologist at Caltech, said, “When users are using very old tools that we really know are not the right thing to use, it in a sense devalues the contributions of all of us developing new methodology. It sends the message that it doesn’t really matter what program you use, that they’re all similar—and that’s not really the case.” Not only can older methods deliver less accurate results but the results can also contribute to the reproducibility problem facing scientific publishing today.
The reproducibility problem
Reproducibility is a fundamental principle of scientific research. When researchers cannot replicate the findings from a study, it casts doubt on that study’s validity. And when researchers use outdated tools, reproducing results is often more difficult. Readers want to be able to trust what they read in academic journals, and researchers want to be able to use those studies as the basis for further studies. The lack of reproducibility and, therefore, outdated methods are problems not only for academics and publishers but also the readers who rely on scientific journals.
How can academic publishers help?
Journal publishers are information gatekeepers, ensuring the quality and validity of published research. They do this through the peer review process. Peer reviewers would be better able to ensure the validity of results if they judged the papers knowing the methods used. To that end, researchers should be fully transparent about their methodologies and research tools, and peer reviewers need to take these into consideration when judging research quality and accuracy, even if it includes recommending researchers repeat their studies with more up-to-date methods.
Some scientists have suggested the peer review process be an ongoing effort, even after publication. Others recommend making more use of pre-print servers where reviewers with proper credentials can read and evaluate articles online before they go to print.
Academic publishers can help by implementing standards to ensure authors use up-to-date research methodologies and by encouraging and publishing more replication studies. Within these changes, they should try to streamline processes to reduce time to publication. Publishers can also enlist quality peer reviewers familiar with the latest tools and technologies who would also be willing to rapidly retract any studies they found to be inaccurate.