A report by Begley and Ellis, published in 2012, was hugely influential in fueling current interest and dismay about the lack of reproducibility in research. In their original report the authors claimed that the scientists of Amgen had been unable to replicate 47 of 53 studies.

Over the past decade, before pursuing a particular line of research, scientists (including C.G.B.) in the haematology and oncology department at the biotechnology firm Amgen in Thousand Oaks, California, tried to confirm published findings related to that work. Fifty-three papers were deemed ‘landmark’ studies (see ‘Reproducibility of research findings’). It was acknowledged from the outset that some of the data might not hold up, because papers were deliberately selected that described something completely new, such as fresh approaches to targeting cancers or alternative clinical uses for existing therapeutics. Nevertheless, scientific findings were confirmed in only 6 (11%) cases. Even knowing the limitations of preclinical research, this was a shocking result.

Despite the limitations identified by the authors themselves, this report has taken on a life of truthy citation as if most of all biomedical science reports cannot be replicated.

I have remarked a time or two that this is ridiculous on the grounds the authors themselves recognize, i.e., a company trying to skim the very latest and greatest results for intellectual property and drug development purposes is not reflective of how science works. Also on the grounds that until we know exactly which studies and what they mean by “failed to replicate” and how hard they worked at it, there is no point in treating this as an actual result.

At first, the authors refused to say which studies or results were meant by this original population of 53.

Now we have the data! They have reported their findings! Nature announces breathlessly that Biotech giant publishes failures to confirm high-profile science.

Awesome. Right?

Well, they published three of them, anyway. Three. Out of fifty-three alleged attempts.

Are you freaking kidding me Nature? And you promote this like we’re all cool now? We can trust their original allegation of 47/53 studies unreplicable?

These are the data that have turned ALL OF NIH UPSIDE DOWN WITH NEW POLICY FOR GRANT SUBMISSION!

Christ what a disaster.

I look forward to hearing from experts in the respective fields these three papers inhabit. I want to know how surprising it is to them that these forms of replication failure occurred. I want to know the quality of the replication attempts and the nature of the “failure”- was it actually failure or was it a failure to generalize in the way that would be necessary for a drug company’s goals? Etc.

Oh and Amgen? I want to see the remaining 50 attempts, including the positive replications.
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Begley CG, Ellis LM. Drug development: Raise standards for preclinical cancer research. Nature. 2012 Mar 28;483(7391):531-3. doi: 10.1038/483531a.