Why no archive of refuted research?

by Kaj_Sotala 1 min read26th Aug 201111 comments


From The Atlantic's Lies, Damned Lies and Medical Science:

Still, Ioannidis anticipated that the community might shrug off his findings: sure, a lot of dubious research makes it into journals, but we researchers and physicians know to ignore it and focus on the good stuff, so what’s the big deal? The other paper headed off that claim. He zoomed in on 49 of the most highly regarded research findings in medicine over the previous 13 years, as judged by the science community’s two standard measures: the papers had appeared in the journals most widely cited in research articles, and the 49 articles themselves were the most widely cited articles in these journals. These were articles that helped lead to the widespread popularity of treatments such as the use of hormone-replacement therapy for menopausal women, vitamin E to reduce the risk of heart disease, coronary stents to ward off heart attacks, and daily low-dose aspirin to control blood pressure and prevent heart attacks and strokes. Ioannidis was putting his contentions to the test not against run-of-the-mill research, or even merely well-accepted research, but against the absolute tip of the research pyramid. Of the 49 articles, 45 claimed to have uncovered effective interventions. Thirty-four of these claims had been retested, and 14 of these, or 41 percent, had been convincingly shown to be wrong or significantly exaggerated. If between a third and a half of the most acclaimed research in medicine was proving untrustworthy, the scope and impact of the problem were undeniable.


But even for medicine’s most influential studies, the evidence sometimes remains surprisingly narrow. Of those 45 super-cited studies that Ioannidis focused on, 11 had never been retested. Perhaps worse, Ioannidis found that even when a research error is outed, it typically persists for years or even decades. He looked at three prominent health studies from the 1980s and 1990s that were each later soundly refuted, and discovered that researchers continued to cite the original results as correct more often than as flawed—in one case for at least 12 years after the results were discredited.

Here's a suggested solution to the problem of refuted research still being cited. Have some respected agency maintain an archive of studies that have failed to replicate or that have otherwise been found lacking. Once such an archive existed, medical journals could adopt a policy of checking all citations in a proposed article against the archive, rejecting submissions that tried to cite refuted research as valid. This might also alleviate the problem of people not doing replications because replications don't get many cites. Once such an archive was established, getting your results there might become quite prestigious.

The one major problem that I can see with this proposal is that it's not always obvious when a study should be considered refuted. But even erring on the side of only including firmly refuted studies should be much better than nothing at all.

Such a fix seems obvious and simple to me, and while maintaining the archive and keeping it up to date would be expensive, it should be easily affordable for an organization such as a major university or the NIH. Similar archives could also be used for fields other than medicine. Is there some reason that I'm missing for why this isn't done?