IN ECONOMIC theory the winner’s curse refers to the idea that someone who places the winning bid in an auction may have paid too much. Consider, for example, bids to develop an oil field. Most of the offers are likely to cluster around the true value of the resource, so the highest bidder probably paid too much.
The same thing may be happening in scientific publishing, according to a new analysis. With so many scientific papers chasing so few pages in the most prestigious journals, the winners could be the ones most likely to oversell themselves—to trumpet dramatic or important results that later turn out to be false. This would produce a distorted picture of scientific knowledge, with less dramatic (but more accurate) results either relegated to obscure journals or left unpublished.
… Dr Ioannidis and his colleagues argue that the reputations of the journals are pumped up by an artificial scarcity of the kind that keeps diamonds expensive. And such a scarcity, they suggest, can make it more likely that the leading journals will publish dramatic, but what may ultimately turn out to be incorrect, research.
Dr Ioannidis based his earlier argument about incorrect research partly on a study of 49 papers in leading journals that had been cited by more than 1,000 other scientists. They were, in other words, well-regarded research. But he found that, within only a few years, almost a third of the papers had been refuted by other studies. For the idea of the winner’s curse to hold, papers published in less-well-known journals should be more reliable; but that has not yet been established.
Like so many of us, Ioannidis would like to see a way for ALL research findings to be archived, both to offset the bias toward publishing positive data and to provide a way for investigators to avoid repeating experiments done by others or repeating flawed studies:
They suggest that, as the marginal cost of publishing a lot more material is minimal on the internet, all research that meets a certain quality threshold should be published online. Preference might even be given to studies that show negative results or those with the highest quality of study methods and interpretation, regardless of the results.
I think such a repository would be at least as valuable as PubMed Central (NIH Public Access home to all publications arising from NIH-funded research). Clinicaltrials.gov now requires all registered trials to report their findings, the good, the bad, and the ugly, which will help even out the coverage of clinical research, but nothing pre-clinical. Curating such a resource would be a reasonable, common-sense use of the NIH Common Fund funds … perhaps with the marquee journals chipping in some threshold triage/review service to help handle the load as community (of science) service.