The Winner’s Curse

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Current Biomedical Publication System: A Distorted View of the Reality of Scientific Data?:
[Via Scholarship 2.0: An Idea Whose Time Has Come]

Why Current Publication Practices May Distort Science

Young NS, Ioannidis JPA, Al-Ubaydli O

PLoS Medicine Vol. 5, No. 10, e201 / October 7 2008



The current system of publication in biomedical research provides a distorted view of the reality of scientific data that are generated in the laboratory and clinic. This system can be studied by applying principles from the field of economics. The “winner’s curse,” a more general statement of publication bias, suggests that the small proportion of results chosen for publication are unrepresentative of scientists’ repeated samplings of the real world.

The self-correcting mechanism in science is retarded by the extreme imbalance between the abundance of supply (the output of basic science laboratories and clinical investigations) and the increasingly limited venues for publication (journals with sufficiently high impact). This system would be expected intrinsically to lead to the misallocation of resources. The scarcity of available outlets is artificial, based on the costs of printing in an electronic age and a belief that selectivity is equivalent to quality.

Science is subject to great uncertainty: we cannot be confident now which efforts will ultimately yield worthwhile achievements. However, the current system abdicates to a small number of intermediates an authoritative prescience to anticipate a highly unpredictable future. In considering society’s expectations and our own goals as scientists, we believe that there is a moral imperative to reconsider how scientific data are judged and disseminated.

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There are also several other article links at Scholarship 2.0 that are important to read. In particular, there is a discussion of the Winner’s Curse This is an observation that the winner of an auction in which all the bidders have similar information will usually overbid. The idea of the Winner’s Curse was first observed by oil companies bidding on offshore leases.

These authors make the point that publication in scientific journals may also suffer from a bias that resembles the Winner’s Curse. The Winner in an auction presents a price beyond the mean in order to succeed. The authors argue that in a similar way, papers often present data beyond the mean in order to get published.

It is an intriguing speculation and one that might deserve further examination. The data that do get published may be misleading and this may be a reason why early published clinical trials are often not replicated later.

And they make the point that the huge amount of data being generated has not seen a corresponding increase in the places to publish the data or conclusions based on the data. This introduces greater likelihood that what is actually published does not represent the ‘real value’ of the data.

I expect this work to produce some interesting discussions. I would be surprised if it is entirely true but it does propose some changes that might be worth implementing.

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