PLOS’s Erica Kritsberg interviews John Ioannidis about the success of his article “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False”, which reached one million views in April this year.
“Why Most Published Research Findings Are False”, the PLOS Medicine article by John Ioannidis, surpassed one million views late April 2014, the first PLOS article – research or other – to reach this milestone. First published Aug. 30, 2005, it has continued to influence thinking and inspire debate in the field and beyond.
To commemorate this achievement, Ioannidis, C. F. Rehnborg Professor in Disease Prevention, Professor of Medicine, of Health Research and Policy, and of Statistics at Stanford University (Stanford, CA, USA), spoke to us about the article’s background and impact to date.
What is the history behind the article? What compelled you to write about this topic?
JI: I had been thinking and working on the ideas behind this article for probably over a decade. However, the first draft that integrated these ideas matured on the island of Sikinos (Greece) in early summer 2004. I remember working on it in a small balcony overlooking the cove of Alopronoia and telling Despina (my wife) all the time how excited I was about this work. I dare say it was some sort of very unique cognitive, but also aesthetic excitement.
Was this one of your first PLOS articles? Why did you choose PLOS Medicine for submission?
JI: This was my first PLOS article – PLOS Medicine had just started practically. It was a very unusual paper. Given the breadth and importance of the topic, specialty journals would certainly find it uninteresting. General journals had never published something similar that I knew of.
Based on my experience, my mediocre work has been the most easy to get published and get funded, almost ironically considered to be significant and innovative! The problem is when you come up with something really unusual, because there are hardly any standard venues for real innovation or out-of-the-box endeavors. So, I thought PLOS Medicine, as a new journal with major aspirations and new ideas, would be receptive.
The paper went through very rigorous review by many reviewers with very useful constructive comments, and I am happy they allowed me to preserve its overall construct.
How did you think the article would be received, and how does that compare with its actual impact?
JI: As I said above, I had an early feeling that there was something special about this paper, but this is no guarantee for impact. I guess this may also be just recall bias on my part. Clearly the impact and the recognition of this work have been way beyond any expectations I could have had.
What is the most surprising or unexpected result/outcome of this paper?
JI: Possibly the most unexpected corollary is that more popular research fields are less credible. Several people have misunderstood this statement. This corollary holds when scientists work in silos, and each one is trying to outpace the others, finding significance in his/her own results without sharing and combining information.
The opposite holds true when scientists join forces to examine the cumulative evidence. Sadly, in most fields the siloed investigator writing grants where he promises that he/she alone will discover something worthy of the Nobel Prize is still the dominant paradigm. This sort of principal investigator culture is a problem, especially for popular fields where the literature is flooded with tens of thousands of irreproducible papers.
In your perspective, why has this article remained relevant over the years? What fields or subject areas have you had a chance to weigh in on?
JI: I have been humbled by how many colleagues from very diverse fields of scientific investigation have communicated with me over the years to share ideas, concerns and insights about their fields, and to convince me again and again that I know next to nothing.
I have seen the concepts raised by the PLOS Medicine paper discussed not only in biomedicine, but also in social sciences, psychological sciences, economics, and even the physicochemical sciences. It is very refreshing to hear of new ideas and improvements that have been proposed and that may work in specific fields. Hopefully, some of these good ideas also can be adopted by other fields.
What does the future hold for the article and its message?
JI: I am very excited about the new Meta-Research Innovation Center at Stanford (METRICS) that I recently launched with Steve Goodman (Professor of Medicine and of Health & Research Policy and Associate Dean of Clinical and Translational Research, Stanford School of Medicine). METRICS aims to work specifically on research and its policy implications on how to improve research efficiency. However, I have failed repeatedly to predict the future, and it would have been pretty dull if the future were so easily predictable. I can only hope that one day the statement that most published research findings are false will no longer be true for any scientific field.