The American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB) was one of the first to highlight issues of reproducibility with science, so it was with great anticipation that I picked up Richard Harris’s book, Rigor Mortis: How Sloppy Science Creates Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope and Wastes Billions. Although the title is quite dramatic, the book is much more thoughtful and measured. It highlights some of the technical and cultural issues that underlie what has been termed the reproducibility crisis in biomedical science, which is concern about the difficulty in replicating research findings. This book is not written solely as an indictment of what is wrong with science, but as a plea for scientists to find a way to make science stronger by a journalist who seems as vested in the process as a researcher in a lab. I recommend it to anyone who cares about scientific integrity and openness.
It is a quick read that is accessible to non-scientists. Each chapter opens with an anecdote that illustrates and humanizes a problem that impacts reproducibility. Harris begins by highlighting some of the challenges that have entered the biological sciences since they have become less descriptive and more quantitative, including ignorance of rigorous statistical analysis and batch effect, which is a source of variation in experiments when a large number of samples are run in separate batches. He then spends several chapters on the work that is being done with validating cell lines, the use of mouse models, and the challenges of specificity in antibodies. The final chapters tackle the culture of science and the challenges in the future with the promise of precision medicine. Only one of the chapters examines actual nefarious behavior by researchers.
Harris’s long experience as a science journalist and familiarity with the business of science shows when he contrasts the approaches of academia and industry and tackles the issues surrounding hyper-competitiveness in science today. It is clear that he admires the rigorous and careful approach of industry, but understands the different nature of exploratory science in academia. He doesn’t have a solution to the challenges of the publish or perish mentality that drives promotion and tenure decisions in many departments, but highlights the ways that the push to publish quickly in high impact journals can cause scientists to behave in all too human ways, which can motivate them to cut corners and pursue flashy findings over complete stories. A strength of this book is the emphasis on systemic issues rather than just the role of individuals.
ASCB is mentioned in the first chapter, where Harris cites the survey of members that was conducted for The ASCB Report on Reproducibility. The book contains many familiar names of ASCB members who were interviewed by Harris and who provide anecdotes and insights. ASCB has also taken several steps to combat some of the problems Harris cites, including calling out the improper use of impact factors in the Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) and instituting a checklist that helps to guard against sloppy science in our journal Molecular Biology of the Cell. This book and the likely attention that it will bring to many of the problems in science is a clarion call for ASCB to do more in this area. I encourage members to reach out to me with ideas about how ASCB can be a leader in creating solutions to improve the quality of research, including professional development training in statistics and experimental design, which could be offered to members. This book may very well bring negative attention to the scientific community. Rather than be defensive, we should take up the challenge to make science more rigorous in the future.