Easy access to research tools is vital for researchers trying to build on someone else’s work – and it also saves time and resources that can be wasted recreating material, explains James Richards, Scientific Portfolio Associate at Ximbio,
Biologists face an intrinsic challenge in conducting their research. The inherent complexity of biological systems makes it particularly difficult to ensure that all variables have been properly controlled and, therefore, that every experiment is reproducible – reproducibility is the hallmark of the scientific method.
Most researchers want to build on and extend published research, for them it is a less productive use of time and money if they have to repeat earlier work in order to find out why their own results have not turned out as expected.
Yet, according to one study published a couple of years ago in PLoS Biology, researchers in the US alone spend $28bn each year on basic biomedical research that cannot be repeated successfully. Last year, Nature surveyed 1,576 researchers via an online questionnaire and found that more than 70 per cent had tried and failed to reproduce another scientist's experiments. And more than half had failed to reproduce their own experiments.
One can argue about the cost estimates or the methodology of online questionnaires, but the fundamental point rings true – almost everyone has a story (sometimes several) about how they could not get an experiment in the published literature to work in their own laboratory. Ultimately, while wasting time and money is not a trivial issue – the consequence of delaying the development of drugs to treat disease results in avoidable morbidity and mortality.
The PLoS Biology study found that poor materials were the largest factor in reproducibility problems, at 36 per cent, with the design of the study, and issues with data analysis ranking second and third in importance. And it is in reducing the problems stemming from poor materials that Ximbio can help scientists.
James Richards, a Scientific Portfolio Associate at Ximbio, is in the business of ensuring that the scientific community gets wider access to materials – or research tools – of known provenance. One of his roles is to engage researchers and technology transfer personnel at universities and research institutes across the globe to identify all sorts of research tools with the purpose of making them available to all researchers. Without Ximbio’s efforts, more of these neglected materials would lie half-forgotten in research group’s freezers.
Increasing access to all research tools is a vital endeavour to help ensure that research is reproducible. Ximbio’s mission, whenever possible, is to make research tools used in original research available to researchers trying to extend or complement someone else’s work. This avoids having to re-create reagents, with all the potential for unexpected variability which that entails.
As James says: ‘For data to be truly reproducible, research tools must be accessible. There is less value in an academic publishing a good paper, if people are not able to access those reagents, replicate the experiments and build on them.’
It is sometimes under-appreciated that lack of access to original research tools can lead to a double waste of time and effort. If the research tool still exists in a laboratory freezer, say, then it will be a waste of time and money for other laboratories to try to re-create them. But if, because of the inherent complexity of biological systems, the labs do not manage to re-create them identically, then the experiment may perform differently or not work at all. That, in itself, is a waste of resources, which is in turn compounded by the effort that will then have to be expended in troubleshooting.
So why is it that not all research tools are routinely made widely available to the biological sciences community – especially considering that funding bodies encourage researchers to make materials available? As noted earlier, most researchers want to build on and extend published research results. But there is work involved in making their reagents more widely available, and this extra burden takes time and effort away from their own research, and often relies heavily on assistance from the institute’s research or tech transfer office.
For those who originated the reagents, Ximbio offers convenience and traceability; by granting us the responsibility of maintaining and distributing these materials, laboratory researchers can focus on their research. And for those who want to use them, as James points out: ‘Part of Ximbio’s mission is to access these hard-to-find tools that are perhaps not very commercially interesting but important for research; they are the rare and unique bricks, the building blocks of papers. They enable people to move forward without having to reinvent the wheel – why make the same plasmid, the same cell-line, the same antibody, when it is available from someone else’s lab.’
Wider availability is vital, but it is not everything. Underlying our work is the idea of sharing research tools, but sharing information is also vital if we are to do more to foster reproducibility in biological sciences research. That will have to be the subject of my next blog.