A new pilot programme launched by a major medical research funder and a dozen journals is setting out to boost quality and integrity in cancer research in the UK.
The programme, headed by the large British charity Cancer Research UK, encourages researchers to publish their findings in academic journals using the Registered Reports format.
What are Registered Reports?
As this blog notes, in the Registered Reports format:
“Journals decide whether or not to publish a study based on the quality of the research protocol before the results are known.”
“That way, researchers get rewarded for doing excellent science, rather than being incentivised to cherry pick data and perform other dubious statistical acrobatics to generate the spectacular results that their careers currently depend on.”
What is the problem?
Conventional publications in peer-reviewed journals are frequently plagued by so-called Questionable Research Practices, which (arguably) fall short of outright research fraud but can severely undermine the validity of findings.
For example, one research group examined 67 clinical trials published in high-profile journals and found that 354 originally specified outcomes had not been reported, while another 357 outcomes had been silently added post hoc. Only 9 out of 67 trials had been perfectly reported.
While several hundred journals now offer Registered Reports as a publication option, uptake by the scientific community has so far been slow, largely because the format requires researchers to adjust their project timelines and workflows in advance.
How the new programme works
According to Cancer Research UK:
“We're launching a new registered reports pilot in collaboration with researchers at the University of Bristol and a consortium of 12 journals." "The pilot aims to encourage more researchers to publish the results of their research, irrespective of the findings, by streamlining the pathway to submitting a Registered Report. It also provides the opportunity to receive peer review feedback before a research study begins.”
“If your funding application is successful, during the interim period before your study starts, you submit your Registered Report to one of our partner journals for peer review. If accepted for peer review, the journal of choice provides In-Principle Acceptance which is an agreement to publish the manuscript.”
After the project has been completed, the same journal will peer review the final manuscript and, provided it meets quality standards, publish it.
Participation in Cancer Research UK’s pilot programme is voluntary. The programme’s webpage explicitly states that “the funding decision will be made fully independent of participation in this pilot”.
Rolling out Registered Reports globally
TranspariMED’s founder has previously argued that medical research funders should make Registered Reports the norm, rather than an exception:
“Funders could easily turbo-charge the rollout of Registered Reports to more journals by launching dedicated funding windows now, and loudly proclaiming that from 2030 onwards they will require all applicable research to be published in that format.”
Cancer Research UK’s pilot is a big step in the right direction, and if successful will hopefully convince other funders worldwide to follow suit.
Note: Cancer Research UK is a research integrity pioneer in other ways too. The non-profit recently audited its funding portfolio to ensure that all clinical trials it had supported actually made their results public. As far as TranspariMED is aware, it is the first medical research charity worldwide to have done so.