Crisis in What Exactly?

  1. 1.  University of Oxford

The Same Thing Over and Over Again

When scientists fail to reproduce the results of multiple experiments the support previously provided for theories breaks down. This is a modern phenomenon in science dubbed by some a “replication crisis” (Earp and Trafimow, 2015; Ioannidis, 2005; Maxwell, Lau, and Howard, 2015; Spellman, 2015; Stroebe and Strack, 2014). Few fields have been left unscathed, from medicine (Freedman, 2015) to computational science (Peng, 2011), and from psychology (Maxwell, Lau, and Howard, 2015) to political science. Replication crisis-like events, however, have been documented throughout history known as scientific revolutions or paradigm shifts. While they may appear similar, some important contrasts can be drawn out between replication crises and paradigm shifts.

Paradigm shifts occur when a mainstream theory ceases to predict or explain the data as well as originally thought (Kuhn, 1970). The data is instead accounted for by a marginal theory, which comes to be accepted as the new mainstream account. Replication crises are due to methodological failures, unlike scientific revolutions which are triggered by theoretical failures. The data is brought under question due to failure to reproduce the same results, which in turn causes the leading theories to be brought under scrutiny. In the case of replication crises, the presence of a new theoretical account to take over after the loss of evidence for the mainstream view is not guaranteed.

Is science now “progressing” via replication crises? If so, why and what does this mean for the future of the affected fields? In this article, I plan to address these issues by expounding further on the contrasts between paradigm shifts and replication crises and on the changes that have taken place within science as a community and industry. Can the current bout of replication crises culminate in a revolution within the cultural values scientists adhere to? Are fundamental changes required in the normative practice of science or in the descriptive attitudes of scientists toward their work or both?

I propose that replication crises are not the product of ineffective data gathering and insufficient dissemination of experimental paradigms. Instead, these are merely the side-effects caused by problems at the true core of the scientific enterprise: that science does not always provide environments appropriate for researchers to behave properly.

Burning and Decapitation

The Lavoisiers (Marie-Anne and Antoine) contemplating revolution. This science power-couple revolutionised their field — facilitating the transition from alchemy to chemistry. Together they showed that phlogiston, the mainstream view, did not actually predict the data at all. Instead, they demonstrated that oxygen, a substance they discovered, takes part in combustion.


Phlogiston theory was a 17th-18th century attempt to explain combustion, rusting and related phenomena — all of which are now described by the theory of oxidation. It was proposed that a material known as phlogiston existed in all combustible materials which when burned released it and hence lost weight. We now know, as they also discovered at the time, that not all materials lose weight when burned. Experiments, which showed these exceptional materials gaining weight after combustion, undermined the theory. As a result of this and other issues, phlogiston theory was slowly losing credibility. For phloghiston what is coming is clear, especially to those familiar with this story: its demise — attributed to a French nobleman named Lavoisier. The Lavoisiers, see , demonstrated that oxidation is due to oxygen, which reacts with the fuel to release energy. Phlogiston does not exist. The oxygen theory provides a more parsimonious account.

What can be learned from the events that took place during the chemical, and just before the French, revolutions? And what can be gleaned from other paradigm shifts and the history of science more generally? Firstly, most science, especially in the past and in fields with lower noise-to-signal ratios (e.g., physics, chemistry), progressed and continues to progress by the proposal of new theories. This is not the case when we examine replication crises. The paradigm shift that occurred due to the discovery of oxygen did not bring into question the phenomena of breathing or rusting (Trafimow and Earp, in press). It was in fact the trust in the data itself that sealed the fate of phlogiston: materials were measured that gained weight when burned. In the chemical and other scientific revolutions data was dependable.

Secondly, the Lavoisiers were French aristocrats: most highly prestigious science was carried out by privileged people who chose science because they loved it. Their background also protected them for undue stress due to, e.g., job loss — decapitation being a notable exception. In contrast, some of today’s scientists, like people in the present more generally, seek to attain status through their careers, rather than by birth, often by means not compatible with the aims of science. Arguably, Lavoisier and contemporaries, from lowly research assistants to prominent figures, had better job security than many of today’s PhD students and postdoctoral researchers (Garrison, Stith, and Gerbi, 2005; Powell, 2015). Prestige- and recognition-seeking while perhaps not inherently misplaced in and of themselves, can run counter to science’s aims of truth-seeking. Most researchers are primarily intrinsically motivated, but there are enough exceptions to cause problems.

Science Hacking

Fabiola Gianotti and Peter Higgs embracing after she presented evidence for the existence of the Higgs boson (Credit for photograph: Denis Balibouse, Associated Press). Higgs was not always supported throughout his career by institutions and peers. Yet he believes he would have an even harder time in the present: “Today I wouldn’t get an academic job. It’s as simple as that. I don’t think I would be regarded as productive enough.”(Aitkenhead, 2013) 


P-hacking is the practise of getting the results required regardless of the data by means of academic misconduct and rigged statistical testing. The mildest forms of p-hacking, from the author’s personal experiences and others’, are extremely widespread (Head et al., 2015; Lakens, 2015; Leggett et al., 2013; Masicampo and Lalande, 2012). This brings us to the crux of the present problems. Many scientists — enough to cause replication crises! — do not behave in a way that ensures their experiments can be reproduced (Ioannidis, 2005). The collection and dissemination of data and experimental paradigms often is done under duress. The causes of such limitations in scientific rigour are manifold: too much pressure (see Figure 2); lack of guidance, training, and motivation (Borlee, 2011; Taylor, 2011; Woolston, 2015); and little job security (Alvarez, 2007).

Undoubtedly, all scientists start off extremely passionate, but some due to toxic environments spiral into depression (Gewin, 2012), while others become corrupted by a suboptimal system (McNutt, 2015). This has serious repercussions; the success of the whole enterprise depends on passion (Vallerand, 2012). In the same way that a hospital cannot prioritise saving money over saving patients without being branded a failure, science that gives higher priority to things other than producing and testing theories, is doomed to fall into further crises.

Nonetheless, progress cannot purely be made by replicating previous research. Scientific progress requires new theories which fuel revolutions in understanding. However, this idealised form of progress cannot be achieved without improving the foundations: experimental design and data gathering and analysis. So while progress cannot be made purely on the back of replication, it is a necessary part of rectifying: the problems we inherit from other researchers; the issues inherent in disciplines with high noise-to-signal ratios — false positives are often inevitable (Nuzzo and others, 2014); and the biases in publication and the file drawer effect (Simonsohn, Nelson, and Simmons, 2014).

Can a passion for science be maintained in PhD students and beyond? If not, no amount of data sharing (since if it is bad data it needs a passionate person to re-analyse and debunk, motivated by uncovering the truth) or prize-giving (working towards a prize like working towards an exam is not the same as doing good science) will bring better theories and better practice to the fore (Stoeber et al., 2011). Top down regulation cannot always drive systemic changes, especially if those working at the bottom are cunning enough to bypass controls, which depend on mutual trust U. (Frith and Frith, 2014).

“Questionable research practices” (Spellman, 2015; Stroebe and Strack, 2014) include: tricking or by-passing journal peer review systems, such as providing fake email addresses for reviewers or publishing a book instead of an article; and serious academic misconduct and outright fraud (McNutt, 2015; Yong, 2012), such as deleting participants before making data public. In the same way that the use of closed-circuit television systems does not reduce crime levels to zero, the use of fully open science cannot deter a motivated cheat from manipulating their data before making it accessible (Gigerenzer and Marewski, 2015). Such cases of misconduct or negligence sap other researchers’ time and waste everybody’s money (Freedman, 2015). Something needs to change.

Revolution and Progress

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The above diagram shows a distinction between preventative and curative ways of treating replication crises reproduced from figure 1 in: Leek and Peng 2015). The authors propose that “the replication crisis needs to be considered from the perspective of primary prevention” (pp. 1645-6 Leek and Peng, 2015); drawing attention to improved science education as a long-term solution.


We must create an atmosphere where young researchers flourish as opposed to lose their spark, where passionate people care about generating and testing theories and do not worry disproportionately about impact factors or losing their jobs. Stigma needs to be removed from carrying out replications, publishing null results, and speaking out against academic misconduct. Instead we must actively discourage those who engage in misconduct. We must dissuade systems and people who care about quantity and prestige over quality (Fanelli, 2010; Neill, 2008; Reich and others, 2013; Schekman, 2013). Replication crises indicate that we need to provide scientists with an environment in which they can carry out their job to the best of their abilities and uncorrupted by ulterior motives. We need a culture that supports scientists to do good science. This culture is created by us, the individual scientists within it. We can choose collectively and individually which practices we wish to shame and which to praise, and which principles we want our contemporaries and successors to uphold.

If we want revolution, we will have it (Spellman, 2015). The machinery is in place for improvement, including: better pay (Kaiser, 2016; Smaglik, 2016); preventative measures as well as reactive “crises” (e.g., as shown in Figure 4; Leek & Peng, 2015); proposals for improving training, providing realistic career expectations for students and postdoctoral researchers, and severe criticisms of the current system in which PhD students are treated like cheap disposable labour (Borlee, 2011; Seeliger, 2012; Taylor, 2011; Woolston, 2015); a debate with respect to the retirement of baby-boomers (Scudellari ,2015); the open science movement (Barnes, 2010; R. D. Morey et al., 2016); calls for more clarity in journal articles (Casadevall and Fang, 2010; Cooper and Guest, 2014; Mesirov, 2010); understanding the need for better theories (Klein, 2014); the shaming of flagrant p-hackers, scammers, and bullies (Bohannon, 2014; McNutt, 2015); acknowledging the value of conceptual replications (Crandall and Sherman, 2016); and more. None of these can single-handedly change the institutional values of science, in the same way that a single individual cannot. But if we tackle the issues the replication crises have uncovered, from the top downwards and the grass-roots upwards, positive change is inevitable. Ultimately: only more honest people create more honest science — and only an honest culture breeds more honest people.


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Showing 1 Reviews

  • Kh web square
    Konrad Hinsen

    This essay consists of two parts. The first part argues that today's replication crisis is different from past crises that lead to paradigm shifts. The second part argues that the methodological crisis of non-reproducibility is caused, at least in part, by today's scientists being driven by motivations other than a passion for doing science.

    I agree with the analysis in the first part, but it leaves me wondering if anybody ever proposed the contrary (i.e. that the reproducibility crisis is just the first sign of a coming paradigm shift). The fact the reproducibility problems occur in many different fields of science that do not share much common theory suggests that it is of a different nature than, for example, the "phlogiston crisis".

    As for the second part, it identifies an important part of the problem, which I think is slowly but surely being realized by the scientific community. What I miss is a discussion of academic tenure, whose explicit goal was to guarantee an academic freedom similar to the one enjoyed by the first scientists who relied on personal fortune. Tenure as a guarantee of freedom was slowly eroded by the increasing dependence on grants to pay for expensive experiments and for non-tenured junior researchers, and then by the responsibility that PIs assumed for the careers of their younger co-workers. Strangely enough, scientists have always seen the dependence coming from money given by private entities with clear interests in the outcome (industry, ...), but failed to realize that public money distributed via grants creates an equal dependence by forcing scientists to satisfy the criteria used in grant evaluation (read: papers and impact factors).

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      Olivia Guest

      Your first paragraph is an overview of what you propose my essay is about. I disagree slightly that I am arguing that a paradigm shift and a reproducibility crisis are different. They most definitely are, but I am more concerned with drawing out how and why, and what can learned from the comparison.

      Your second paragraph concerns the aforementioned issue, making out that I am arguing perhaps against a straw person. I am not. I do not concern myself with an imaginary person who proposed that a paradigm shift and a replication crisis are the same. On the contrary, my first two paragraphs make it clear that they are indeed very different. In no part of the essay do I propose an Other who claims they are similar other than of course myself during the essay. I draw out the similarities (and the important part: the differences) for the exposition of my own points and not as a rebuff to anybody else.

      I agree that I did not go into the history or rationale behind the creation of tenure. I did not think that it was required to further any of my points here, however useful more generally to those who wish to understand the tenure system. Other have and their work will be more valuable than what I can expound on during this short essay.

      To be clear: the UK has no tenure system; I wanted my essay to be as accessible as possible. Besides, I discuss tenure-like security throughout my essay. I explicitly mention the calls for baby-boomers, for example, to relinquish their power (see Scudellari, 2015), as well as the need for better pay, etc. In fact all the points mentioned in my last paragraph address this problem either directly or indirectly. I also say: "We must create an atmosphere where young researchers flourish as opposed to lose their spark, where passionate people care about generating and testing theories and do not worry disproportionately about impact factors or losing their jobs."

      • Kh web square
        Konrad Hinsen

        In my opinion, tenure (and similar arrangements in other countries) matters in this context because it shows that people have been aware of the importance of academic freedom long ago, when science started to become a profession.

        People like Lavoisier had the required freedom by chance, not through any deliberate arrangement. Academic freedom was lost with the professionalization of research, re-introduced with tenure, and now it is being lost again.


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