Building trust through badging

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Anisa Rowhani-Farid and Adrian Barnett recently published the second version of their Research Article in which they compared data-sharing in two journals and whether badges was associated with increased sharing. In this guest blog, Anisa Rowhani-Farid describes what motivated her in her work and the results of her research.

Prior to the appearance of scientific journals in the 17th century, researchers were hesitant to share their findings with others. The pace of scientific advancement, however, changed radically with the establishment of the printing press which led to the development of scientific journals in 1665 when Henry Oldenburg of the Royal Academy of Sciences launched the publication Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Academy of Sciences. When the Royal Society was established in 1660 it had the motto Nullius in verba, which means ‘take nobody’s word for it’. From the very beginning, science was about verifying facts, it was about being open with data.

Facts in the post-truth era

But we now find ourselves in a post-truth era, where emotion seems to be gaining ascendancy over reason. Post-truth, was the Oxford dictionary word of the year in 2016, which was defined as: ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’. How has truth suddenly become so undermined?

Within this current climate of ‘alternative facts’ there is much public scrutiny and suspicion around the validity of science. Are scientific truths undeniable facts or are they debatable opinions made by a group of biased researchers? And how are scientific claims measured?

John Ioannidis, the renowned meta-scientist, wrote a radical article in 2005 where he concluded through simulations that most published scientific findings are false and misleading. His assertion, compounded by the symptoms of the current post-truth era, catalyzed a global movement by the meta-research community to lessen pseudoscientific claims and to strengthen the power of science and truths.


Badges denote best practice

This has motivated my research into open research, the process where all details of the research process are shared, making them verifiable and strengthening their validity. A potential policy for encouraging researchers to practice open research is using badges.

A badge can act as a powerful tool; it is a physical representation of an abstract concept. Badges have been used for centuries to represent achievements or the adherence to certain standards. For instance, badges awarded to scouts when they learn a new skill, or badges given by the Food and Drug Administration to products that comply to regulations. Not only does a badge stimulate trust in the public, it rewards its recipients with a sense of integrity as it recognises their efforts to comply with best practice. The type of badge I’m researching is a digital badge that symbolises the verification of science.


Badges to address reproducibility

Journals are the key instrument for the dissemination of scientific knowledge, but they have generally not provided a platform for the verification of science. Journals have not always requested the raw data that scientists’ collect nor the code which they used to analyse their findings, which are the key elements required to reproduce and verify an experiment. No wonder then that in a survey conducted by Nature in 2016, 90% of readers agreed that the scientific community is in the midst of a reproducibility crisis. Could a badge for sharing data and code help counter this crisis?

The reproducibility policy at the journal Biostatistics introduced in 2009 rewarded research articles with data available with a “D” on the front page, articles with code available with a “C”, and articles with data and code available – and which were confirmed as reproducible by the Associate Editor for reproducibility –with an “R”.  We examined the change in sharing after the policy change at Biostatistics and used a control journal of Statistics in Medicine which did not have a reproducibility policy or any other type of reward scheme during the years 2006 to 2013.

We found that badges only slightly increased sharing at Biostatistics with a 7.6% increase in data sharing and no change in code sharing. So although badges worked, they will likely need to be used in tandem with other policy changes, such as mandated data and code sharing. Or perhaps policies will not be enough given the urgency of the current problems of science, which call for greater collaborative action between journals, universities, funders, and scientists. It might be time during this paradigm shift towards more open research to collectively begin considering what the implications of building a robust, verifiable, trustworthy scientific body of knowledge might be.

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