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I am Spartacus .. Really, I am …

Assessing the accuracy of scientific papers is the key to accuracy in medical research; mistakes are costly

One of the themes that clearly runs through many of my posts, is the value and tremendous need for research-derived evidence for all medical protocols and treatments. Since, as I have discussed in a previous blog post, experience, whether individual or of a large group, is considered the weakest type of evidence, then we must strive to base our medical opinions on the content of the millions of medical journal articles, that are in fact the ultimate differentiator between modern medicine and that of 100 years ago and more.

When a physician and/or researcher submits the results and analysis of any type of study for publication, there is an inherent understanding that the information submitted is truthful. It may be discovered that there was a flaw in the research model or in the data collection or in the analysis of the data. But all of these “mistakes” were unintentional. And it is due to these unintentional mistakes that there are review boards that carefully assess the data and analysis contained within the submission. If the reviewers discover a significant issue, the submission is returned to the author for further clarifications and/or corrections.

Despite the discerning review of the submission, the author is given the benefit of the doubt that his or her statements are legitimate. So if the author makes even a grandiose statement, it is still the task of the reviewers to assess the evidence behind the authors claim, without allowing for personal opinions or prejudices to affect judgment. Sometimes though, reviewers will discover inconsistencies that call into question the veracity of the author and the data.

Approximately 3 years ago, a leading researcher was cited for scientific misconduct. This particular researcher was very prolific and it was his work that formed the basis of a whole series of published and guideline-changing discoveries. One study that was running at the time of the investigation, was abandoned because of the author’s impropriety. In the end of the entire ordeal, the medical boards responsible for setting guidelines had to reset their recommendations to the previous version that was, as far as the reviewers knew, based on the remaining credible trials that were previously published.

The damage done by such an abuse of trust, affects the entire research community. Many people, both from the professional spheres and from the general public, will be more hesitant to trust future claims by researchers. Also, and this is definitely not a small point, research costs a tremendous amount of money. All of the publications that were retracted due to the author’s misconduct, translate into a loss of many millions of dollars in research grants.This kind of money does not magically regenerate itself. After a case like this, granting bodies will be even more skeptical and careful before financially supporting any research. I think it is needless to say, that the university at which this subterfuge occurred, will be kept under a magnifying glass until trust is restored.

Technology can help to some degree when large amounts of data and conclusions need to be assessed. As programs like Watson become smarter and faster, they will be able to check new submissions for plagiarism, even if the text has been significantly rewritten. Watson will also be able to recheck all of the data from a study to be sure that the analyses are mathematically correct

So, if the author of a given study calculated his statistics incorrectly, Watson will pick up on this. In addition, Watson will look for other research papers that discuss similar issues. If Watson finds a whole series of papers with conflicting conclusions, then the author of the present study will need to more fully address the reason for his/her variant results.

Now, the reason for a new paper with drastically different results than previous studies, could be due to the use a different and newer technology than was available at the time of the older studies. Or, it could be that all of the other studies were based on a single major research paper that is eventually found to be incorrect in its conclusions. Computers can look at all of these issues without human emotional distractions. In order for research to maintain its high level of regard, I personally believe that unbiased computer systems will be used more and more to validate results and conclusions.

Hopefully, when a computer comes to the conclusion that “I am Spartacus”, it will be able to show all of the supportive evidence for this grandiose statement. And once people have seen all of this evidence, it will be very hard to deny the computer’s assertion. I guess that means that we will have to by the computer a sword.

Thanks for listening

About the Author
Dr. Nahum Kovalski received his bachelor's of science in computer science and his medical degree in Canada. He came to Israel in 1991 and married his wife of 22 years in 1992. He has 3 amazing children and has lived in Jerusalem since making Aliyah. Dr. Kovalski was with TEREM Emergency Medical Services for 21 years until June of 2014, and is now a private consultant on medicine and technology.
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