Rescuing biomedical research from its systemic flaws

A recent and important article by a small group of luminaries (including Nobel laureate Harold Varmus) describes some of the endemic issues that currently plague biomedical research.

The article focuses on the problems faced by scientists in the USA, but most of the issues highlighted are applicable elsewhere, including Canada.

A good analysis of the article can be found over at Ars Technica.


The way we share and disseminate the data that our work generates is slowly changing. Open access is increasingly popular and changes to the peer review system are slowly being introduced (see F1000Research and their policy of open peer review).

In the life sciences, publications are probably the single biggest metric that will decide career prospects of trainees hoping to attain faculty positions. The need to secure publications shapes that way we do science - it drives a mentality of secrecy and a proprietary attitude towards the scientific endeavour, ultimately preventing wide spread dissemination of results until they are “ready” for publication. To many this is the antithesis of what science should be.

Pre-print servers have been the de facto way of presenting scientific results in the field of physics (see for about 20 years, and have been roundly celebrated as a mechanism that has underscored the strong team based science that is done in physics. Now a similar service has been launched (Nov 2013) for biology, called bioRxiv. From the bioRxiv website:

“bioRxiv (pronounced "bio-archive") is a free online archive and distribution service for unpublished preprints in the life sciences. It is operated by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, a not-for-profit research and educational institution. By posting preprints on bioRxiv, authors are able to make their findings immediately available to the scientific community and receive feedback on draft manuscripts before they are submitted to journals.”

It remains to be seen how or if this approach will shape the way we publish in biology, but it will be interesting to watch it’s development.