This is a story about how we came to do work on research waste in ecology, what we have learned, and what we will do about it. Written from the perspectives of all the co-authors.
How it started & what we learned
AC: In 2020 I was applying for an ERC starting grant. To support my idea that we must study and improve scientific system so we can produce more robust and more impactful science, I did some literature search. I came across a paper that estimated something called’ research waste’ for health research (1). Their results shocked me: 85% of health research was avoidably wasted. For my ERC application, I did a quick and dirty calculation of research waste in ecology. But I wanted to do it properly too. As life would have it, I was also just switching my position, moving from the Netherlands to Croatia. Why not involve some bright minds from my new institute in this work? So, I asked Tin if he would be interested, and whether he could suggest a Master's student join the project. He suggested Marija, and the rest is history leading to the first estimate of research waste in ecology, and the second estimate of waste for any research field.
Through this work, apart from the interesting results we found, I have also confirmed my old-time conviction: No effort is wasted! While I did not get the ERC, I found a huge benefit from writing it: finally taking time to properly think about what I want to do in my science, ‘discovering’ and getting involved with a completely new line of research (that on the research waste) and meeting two great scientists and persons, Marija and Tin along the way.
MP: I embarked on a 'research waste journey' by joining the Antica and Tin during my master's study. Before that, I'd never really thought of the term 'waste' as something that can be generated over the research cycle. To be honest, I never really pondered about the ways we do science. After some discussion we decided that the best way forward was to estimate research waste for three main stages of research life cycle: study planning (which includes core study design, data collection and data analysis), result reporting and publication. We considered data collection and data analysis as outcomes of study planning: a plan of a future study should include data collection procedures and appropriate statistical approaches. We also decided to distinguish two types of waste: core waste and exploitative waste. Core waste is all the conducted (and funded) work that never gets published. The exploitative waste can be hard to grasp, but it basically means that users have a lower chance to exploit all the information from publications. These two make up the overall waste that accumulates over the research life cycle. Simple, right?
I’ll never forget all of our Zoom sessions and discussions which resulted in, guess what, a new term - the unused potential of research.. We argue that unused potential is likely much larger than waste but at the same time impossible to calculate. We cannot foresee what impact a particular research would have had if its design had been better or if its results were fully rather than partially reported. Unsed potentail also includes unpublished datasets, or software. We believe that focusing on unused potential instead of waste can better facilitate recommendations for improvement and reduce resistance to the adoption of new strategies, policies etc.
I would like to end things on three positive notes: 1) now that we are ‘officially aware’ of how much of the research waste is there in ecology, we should all work on solutions to reduce waste, 2) I’ve learned much about open science concepts and best research practices, 3) like Antica said, I’ve met two great scientist that are now my mentors and colleagues.
TK: I was excited about Antica joining my lab, adding some quite novel research lines. As we discussed future work, her ERC grant came up – and I learned about Antica’s preliminary findings on research waste. Can’t be I thought, and agreed this needs further digging. My colleague, prof. Hackenberger, thought his master’s student Marija was perfect for the team, and so she joined the team, and later the lab as well. Our findings still astonish me, but I think there is more nuance to it than immediately apparent. In medicine, there is no room for error hence any substandard study is practically waste. In ecology, systems are not as clear-cut, and ecosystems are often too complex to account for everything - in a way, every data point could be useful. This is why I love that our discussions turned us from identifying waste to looking at how to reduce unused potential of ecological research. I believe there is much we can do here, and am excited about our future work on the topic.
What will we do about it
We will work towards reducing the unused potential of our work –keep learning to use reproducible workflows, and making our research as open as possible. We will also continue advocating for open science and meta-science in ecology and beyond. Within this we hope to communicate not only with researchers but also with funders and publishers. Change in incentives must happen and more money must be invested into making research robust. This is largely the role of those who fund and publish research. If someone has a tip on how to do reach out to funders and publishers – please get in touch. And of course, we will continue researching the research waste, the unused potential of ecological research, and developing solutions to reduce it
What will you do about research waste, dear reader?
Chalmers, I. & Glasziou, P. Avoidable waste in the production and reporting of research evidence. Lancet 374, 86–89 (2009).