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Peer Review in The Economist

This may have made the rounds, but if not, then of possible interest. Ann

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Sloppy stats shame science

Jun 3rd 2004 
>From The Economist print edition

What is published in scientific journals may not be as true as it should

SCIENTIFIC and medical journals, with their august panels of peer
reviewers and fact checkers, are not the sort of places many mistakes are
to be expected. Yet Emili Garca-Berthou and Carles Alcaraz, two
researchers at the University of Girona in Spain, have found that 38% of a
sample of papers in Nature, and a quarter of those sampled in the British
Medical Journal (BMJ)two of the world's most respected journalscontained
one or more statistical errors. Not all of these errors led to erroneous
conclusions, but the authors of the study, which has just been published
in BMC Medical Research Methodology, another journal, reckon that 4% of
the errors may have caused non-significant findings to be misrepresented
as being significant.

Dr Garca-Berthou and Dr Alcaraz investigated 32 papers from editions of
Nature published in 2001, and 12 from the BMJ in the same year. They
examined the numbers within each, to see whether the data presented
actually led to the statistical conclusion the authors drew, and also
whether there was anything fishy about the numbers themselves.
Appropriately, they used a statistical technique to do their checking. If
a set of data are unedited, the last digits in the numbers recorded will
tend to have the values 0-9 at random, since these digits represent small
values, and are thus the ones that are hardest to measure. If those
numbers are rounded carelessly, however, 4s and 9s (which tend to get
rounded up to the nearest half or whole number) will be rarer than they
should be. The two researchers duly discovered that 4s and 9s were,
indeed, rarer than chance would predict in many of the papers under

Jargon and statistics
False data, false results. Though it was difficult to show whether, in any
given case, this falsity led to a result being proclaimed statistically
significant when it was not, it was possible to estimate how much error
there was likely to be. In one case, however, there was no doubt. A number
supposed to be statistically significant was explicitly mis-stated, and a
false inference drawn in the paper's conclusion.

Of course, mistakes will creep through from time to time in the best-run
organisations, and there is no suggestion that any of the errors observed
was a deliberate fraud. But there do seem to have been rather a lot of
them. However, as Kamran Abbasi, deputy editor of the BMJ, laments,
although the world at large looks at scientific peer-review -- the system
journals use to keep their authors accurate and honest -- as a sacred
process, it is in fact imperfect. We certainly do not spend our time
recalculating all these numbers, and our whole review process would likely
grind to a halt if we tried to do so.

Maxine Clarke, publishing executive editor of Nature, says her journal
will be examining the papers cited by Dr Garca-Berthou and Dr Alcaraz
before deciding what action, if any, needs to be taken. At first sight,
some awareness-raising about statistical accuracy among manuscript
editors, peer-reviewers and proof-readers seems necessary, but we have
changed our workflows considerably since the period studied, says Ms

One cure might be for researchers to publish raw data as well as
statistical analysis and conclusions. That way, anyone who really cares
can check the sums. For some years, Nature has offered supplementary
information online to accompany its papers. This information is
peer-reviewed, but Ms Clarke believes it is too specialised for people
outside the field to find interesting. We do not explicitly ask authors,
as routine, for the raw data underlying their reported statistical
results, she says. This suggestion is now on the agenda for our next
editorial meeting on editorial practices and criteria.

The real answer, however, surely lies with the researchers themselves. Far
too many scientists have only a shaky grasp of the statistical techniques
they are using. They employ them as an amateur chef employs a cook book,
believing the recipes will work without understanding why. A more cordon
bleu attitude to the maths involved might lead to fewer statistical
souffles failing to rise.