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A conversation with John Ioannidis, “the superhero poised to save” medical research

I always relish a good Q&A. As a writer, I know how hard it is to craft questions that elicit insights into a person — or his or her work. That's why I jumped at the opportunity to spotlight a recently published Vox interview with John Ioannidis, MD, DSc, director of the Meta-Research Innovation Center at Stanford.

Ioannidis is blunt, and prolific, with his criticisms of science.

Among his concerns: Researchers usually publish only results that show statistical significance, failing to share numerous experiments that didn't work out, which would also be illustrative. Many studies aren't reproducible: Sometimes due to a lack of data, other times just due to shoddy procedures. Researchers "spin" data to please their funders.  And in universities, scientists are compelled to publish, a system that favors quantity over quality. Peer review has gaps. And the list goes on and on.

What, then, to do?

Here's Ioannidis (referred to by the writer as "the superhero poised to save" medical research) in the Q&A:

Maybe what we need is to change the incentive and reward system in a way that would reward the best methods and practices. Currently, we reward the wrong things: people who submit grant proposals and publish papers that make extravagant claims. That's not what science is about. If we align our incentive and rewards in a way that gives credibility to good methods and science, maybe this is the way to make progress.

One problem is education, he says:

Most scientists in biomedicine and other fields are mostly studying subject matter topics; they learn about the subject matter rather than methods. I think that several institutions are slowly recognizing the need to shift back to methods and how to make a scientist better equipped in study design, understanding biases, in realizing the machinery of research rather than the technical machinery.

There's much more in the piece, including a glimpse of Ioannidis' "love numbers" system.

Previously: Shake up research rewards to improve accuracy, says Stanford's John Ioannidis, John Ioannidis discusses the popularity of his paper examining the reliability of scientific research and "U.S. effect" leads to publication of biased research, says Stanford's John Ioannidis 

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