New Center to Improve Research Quality Launches at Stanford

Mark Crane

April 24, 2014

A new center at Stanford University in California will evaluate how scientific research is conducted worldwide and attempt to incentivize the use of best practices.

The Meta-Research Information Center at Stanford (METRICS) will conduct research on the field of research itself and study how it can be done better.

The center will be codirected by John Ioannidis, MD, DSc, professor of medicine and of health research and policy and director of the Stanford Prevention Research Center, and Steven Goodman, MD, MHS, PhD, professor of medicine and of health research and policy and associate dean for clinical and translational research at the School of Medicine, Stanford University.

Dr. Ioannidis is known for examining the biases and reproducibility of published science. His 2005 PLoS Medicine article, "Why Most Published Research Findings Are False," is the most accessed and downloaded article in the history of Public Library of Science, with more than 1 million views to date.

"There are many potential weaknesses and biases that can limit the efficiency of research," Dr. Ioannidis told Medscape Medical News. "These include...lack of systematic consideration of the prior evidence in designing and prioritizing research agendas; financial and other conflicts of interest; suboptimal design of studies; reporting biases; limited public access to raw data and protocols; lack of collaboration among scientists; limited or no attention to replication; and poor use of statistical methods.

John Ioannidis, MD, DSc, codirector of METRICS. Photo credit: Norbert von der Groeben

"In METRICS, we want to systematically study these weaknesses and biases, understand how they operate across different fields of research, identify methods that would help avoid or correct these problems, and disseminate knowledge of these methods to stakeholders who could change how research is done or rewarded, so as to make a difference," he said.

Research should follow the field of sports by publicizing details about how scientists conduct their work, he said. "Sports have multiple accurate ways of measuring performance. If you read the sports pages of any newspaper, there is information about each game including detailed statistics on all the players and scorers plus very detailed quantitative profiles of all the players and all the teams. It would be weird if we cannot have also detailed measurement on research processes, so that we can tell what works and what does not work as well as we thought. Science is the best thing that has happened to human beings. Science can be applied to study the field of science."

METRICS will try to facilitate the building of international collaborations among researchers working in different fields, Dr. Ioannidis, who is also the C.F. Rehnborg Professor in Disease Prevention, said. "In my experience, I am constantly amazed to find out how many interesting ideas and evidence is generated across very diverse disciplines on how one can enhance data sharing, study registration, or replication practices. Sharing successful examples and paradigms with international collaboration can take us a long way towards optimizing research efficiency across many fields."

Seeking Reliable Conclusions

Dr. Goodman's research is focused on the process of using statistics to draw conclusions from data in the presence of uncertainty. He is the senior statistical editor of the Annals of Internal Medicine, vice-chair of the methodology committee of the federal Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute, and for the past decade, editor-in-chief of Clinical Trials.

"All scientists share the common goals of searching for truth and of improving their methods," Dr. Goodman said in a statement released by Stanford University. "But it is sometimes difficult to know which research and reporting practices actually lead to more reliable conclusions without studying research itself, the domain of the meta-research."

Steven Goodman, MD, MHS, PhD, codirector of METRICS. Photo credit: Norbert von der Groeben

"There is widespread concern about research reliability right now, but the best, practicable solutions are not obvious, requiring changes both in methods and in incentive structures," he said. "We want METRICS to be a place where scientists come together to develop and help implement those solutions."

Deborah Zarin, MD, a senior scientist at the National Institutes of Health's National Library of Medicine, has been named as METRICS' first visiting scholar. In her role as director of ClinicalTrials.gov, the largest public registry and results database of publicly and privately funded clinical studies conducted around the world, Dr. Zarin studies the quality of trial reporting and analysis in support of evidence-based clinical and policy decision-making.

"I'm excited about collaborating with colleagues at METRICS in conducting research aimed at improving trial reporting," Dr. Zarin said in the statement. "It's part of our promise to research participants, who put themselves at risk, to make optimal use of these data in order to advance medical knowledge and, ultimately, improve medical care."

The launch of METRICS is funded by a $6 million grant from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. METRICS will also provide educational funding for students and scholars; organize collaborative working groups that include academics, policymakers, research funders, and the public; and help establish similar initiatives worldwide.

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