Friday, August 16, 2013

What is the purpose of research?

There a number of excellent answers to this question. Here are a few—exploration, description, and explanation; to learn something; to gather evidence; documentation, discovery, and interpretation; the advancement of human knowledge

Here’s a nice one from TheLancet about why medical research is done: "to advance knowledge for the good of society; to improve the health of people worldwide; or to find better ways to treat and prevent disease."

I’m sure you could come up with a few responses to the question yourself.

But I don’t think you would get it, nor do I think the lofty answers I listed above are correct either.

What's the real reason to do research?

To get published.


Emm-Null said...

Looking at the article above, I can see the need to clean up bad methods--if the data isn't going to be enough to display anything of trustworthy significance from square one, you clearly have a problem.

I think that the subjective question about the worth of research is a tricky one, though. How many major advancements in sciences have resulted from some mundane experiment failing in some completely unexpected way? The discovery of penicillin was essentially an accident.

There are obviously studies that are of little worth, and you've featured some on your blog before, and I completely understand the need to be more responsible with what we choose to spend our resources researching--but where do you draw the line?

I guess the best way to reframe my question is: is there any way to maintain an academic environment where exploration and creativity are celebrated when the "worth" of a study is being judged subjectively before it's ever performed?

Unknown said...

Agreed, publishing itself becomes a goal of many in the game.
And what's the purpose of publishing?
Getting the attention of others who publish, in the cynics view.

Yet, I regularly search the lit for research relevant to my patients and change practice when the lit is compelling. So count me among the non-cynics.



Dr Skeptic said...

As a researcher myself, I must agree that you have touched on one of the problems with research - the desire to have a publication. With the current surge in journal numbers, many online only, it is easy to publish almost anything. For juniors aiming to pad-out their CV/Resume, getting something published is the way to do it. At the other end, the professors need a constant flow of publications for their job / credibility / reputation / grant funding etc.

This doesn't mean that good research isn't being done, and isn't gradually improving our knowledge base and, in the end, helping people. It means that the good stuff is being diluted.

Skeptical Scalpel said...

Emm, I understand your comments, but Dr. Skeptic is on target with his comment that the good stuff is being diluted. As I mentioned in a previous post, there are over 25 journal devoted to critical care alone. How does one sift through the junk to find the nuggets that Chris, for example, is looking for?

Anonymous said...

I am a clinician-scientist in training.

I understand the cynical view about research and the need to publish. But, research in the pure form serves an essential role in our society. This guy explains it better than I ever could (watch till the end):

Anonymous said...

In capitalism, a consumer buys from a producer. If, from the consumer’s standpoint, the product is mediocre and nearly worthless, then the producer should go out of business. The problem with mediocre “research”, as stated above, seems therefore to be a deficiency of capitalism.
Western civilization used to be far more capitalistic, in the intellectual realm. The results speak for themselves. Shakespeare, Newton, Leeuwenhoek, Beethoven, Wright brothers – such people did not produce masterpieces or make groundbreaking discoveries because of government funding. Publish or perish seems to be about attempting a bunt and praying to get to first base; Newton was about hitting home runs that went into orbit. Show me any field of science that was revolutionized by sufficient accumulation of forgotten, buried, fossilized, publish-or-perish drivel.
Face it, socialism is about mediocrity (and loss of freedom.) We have countless public schools where nobody learns anything (but attendance is compulsory), and they stay in business because the American taxpayer foots the massive bill under penalty of law. Since the 1960s, the blessed government has gotten into healthcare. It loved the elderly so much that it had to help them with their medical bills. Then medical inflation went wild, and personal responsibility went out the window. The consumers were no longer paying - or shopping; the producers were no longer competing. Live any way you want, and society will pick up the tab for your $100,000 CABG. And in 2013, thanks to that initial inroad, the health care system is broken irretrievably, and MDs are reduced to secretaries, pecking away on EMRs mandated by the all-wise government. Private practice is dead. CMS says jump, and we say, how high.

Skeptical Scalpel said...

First Anon, great video. Thanks for the link. I have a confession to make. I sometimes exaggerate.

Second Anon, Thanks for commenting. You covered a lot of ground. I guess I struck a nerve. I agree with many of your points.

Anonymous said...

Just to play devil's advocate about the good stuff being diluted: sometimes we don't know what the good stuff is until years later. Someone recently told me that one of the seminal early papers on the existence of ANP got published in a throwaway journal because they couldn't get it into a good journal. I would argue that it is a good thing they got it out there early--maybe someone was looking for it and it spurred further thought in the field.

This is probably even more true now that computer-based search exists. Some paper might seem trivial at the time, but someone else might be working in the same area a few years later, find it, and be inspired. Or, if it is truly crappy work, the person who finds it might at least be saved from going down the same road...

Skeptical Scalpel said...

Anon, interesting point. However, it may actually support the argument that good research is being diluted.

Even if the early paper on ANP was "seminal" as you say and was not poorly written, you have no proof that it spurred anyone to research the topic further. In fact if it was in a throwaway journal, it might not be in PubMed and hence nearly impossible to find anyway.

I would guess that many new discoveries have started out the same was as ANP. The fact that it was first reported in an obscure journal would likely still have happened today and with the same result. It would not have had an impact.

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