If you're an academic or on your way down a related path, the term "publish or perish" needs no further explanation. For those outside the circle, the pressure to generate multiple high quality research publications in rapid succession may not seem unusual. How else will the worldwide science community know what you are working on? What other channels exist to share interesting pieces of data or breakthrough results?
The flip side of the argument often points out that focussing on publication quantity has detrimental effects on publication quality. This side of the argument is fuelled by reports highlighting careless mistakes in scientific literature, low reproducibility rates in repeat experiments and extreme cases of academic misconduct and the falsification of results. While all of this sounds like a horror story for scientists to deal with, what are the real implications of these errors outside of the lab? A recently published article in the Atlantic outlined one such example in a disconcerting scenario encountered by Heidi Rehm.
In addition to her role on the International Scientific Advisory Committee for the Human Variome Project, Heidi Rehm is also the Chief Laboratory Director at Partners' Laboratory for Molecular Medicine and Associate Professor of Pathology at Brigham & Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School. Rehm's position sees her routinely provide reports on patient samples sent to Partners Laboratory from healthcare professionals around the country.
The particular situation described by Heidi Rehm pertains to a foetal blood test which returned a result indicating a variant in PTPN11, a gene which can signify an increased risk of Noonan syndrome. Using the tools at her disposal, Heidi Rehm scoured the scientific literature, finding a paper which classified the specific variant as pathogenic and indeed likely to cause Noonan syndrome. Naturally, the report she returned detailed this finding.
Since the particular sample in question crossed Heidi Rehm's path, further research by a separate group uncovered a high prevalence of the PTPN11 variant among particular ethnic groups who show no sign of the genetic disease, resoundingly disproving the earlier classification of the variant as pathogenic. The original paper that Rehm referenced was wrong....