Saturday 1 October 2016
On the incomprehensibility of much neurogenetics research
Together with some colleagues, I am carrying out an analysis of methodological issues such as statistical power in papers in top neuroscience journals. Our focus is on papers that compare brain and/or behaviour measures in people who vary on common genetic variants.
I'm learning a lot by being forced to read research outside my area, but I'm struck by how difficult many of these papers are to follow. I'm neither a statistician nor a geneticist, but I have nodding acquaintance with both disciplines, as well as with neuroscience, yet in many cases I find myself struggling to make sense of what researchers did and what they found. Some papers that have taken hours of reading and re-reading to just get at the key information that we are seeking for our analysis, i.e. what was the largest association that was reported.
This is worrying for the field, because the number of people competent to review such papers will be extremely small. Good editors will, of course, try to cover all bases by finding reviewers with complementary skill sets, but this can be hard, and people will be understandably reluctant to review a highly complex paper that contains a lot of material beyond their expertise. I remember a top geneticist on Twitter a while ago lamenting that when reviewing papers they often had to just take the statistics on trust, because they had gone beyond the comprehension of all but a small set of people. The same is true, I suspect, for neuroscience. Put the two disciplines together and you have a big problem.
I'm not sure what the solution is. Making raw data available may help, in that it allows people to check analyses using more familiar methods, but that is very time-consuming and only for the most dedicated reviewer.
Do others agree we have a problem, or is it inevitable that as things get more complex the number of people who can understand scientific papers will contract to a very small set?