Eureka! How a Stanford study revealed the success of research failures

Lisa M. Krieger, The Mercury News on

Published in Lifestyles

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- An important paper recently published by an esteemed Stanford research team reported an unusual result: An experiment went wrong.

Usually, scientists seek to burnish their reputations by announcing positive news of a discovery that solves a problem or transforms how we view the world.

But this negative news — which revealed that earlier neuroscience research was flawed — can also be positive. It builds a stronger scientific foundation and helps restore public trust, according to a growing consensus of scientists and journal editors.

Faced with a disturbing flurry of experiments that can’t be reproduced, academia is ramping up efforts to “future proof” its research.

While headlines are dominated by fraud or research misconduct cases, including a scandal that led to the resignation of Stanford University President Dr. Marc Tessier-Lavigne, these instances are relatively rare. A bigger problem is experimentation that lacks robust design, methodology, analysis and interpretation of results — so arrives at the wrong conclusions.

“Our efforts highlight the importance of experimental rigor,” said Stanford postdoctoral neuroscientist Kif Liakath-Ali, who conducted the work with Nobel Laureate Thomas Südhof.


His revelation — that sometimes a negative can be a positive — came while he was trying to reproduce and build upon a 2017 study about the behavior of brain cells. He wanted to understand the regulation of brain cells, with major implications for memory, behavior and neurological disease. He discovered that the previous approach in the lab had killed cells, leading to “a skewing of results and biased conclusions,” he said.

It was a professional setback for Liakath-Ali, who had aimed to build on this research to make a new and meaningful discovery.

A junior scientist, he worried that his insight, based on almost two years of work, would not advance his career. Instead, Liakath-Ali has been honored by the School of Medicine’s new Program on Research Rigor and Reproducibility with an award for his integrity.

His finding has emboldened other research teams to come forward to describe their own failed attempts, he said. Although those teams had stayed silent, “they had seen the same thing.”


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