Current incentives for scientists lead to underpowered studies with erroneous conclusions

Andrew D Higginson, Marcus R Munafo

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

121 Citations (Scopus)
557 Downloads (Pure)


We can regard the wider incentive structures that operate across science – such as the priority given to novel findings – as an ecosystem within which scientists strive to maximise their fitness (i.e., publication record and career success). Here, we develop an optimality model that predicts the most rational research strategy, in terms of the proportion of research effort spent on seeking novel results rather than on confirmatory studies, and the amount of research effort per exploratory study. We show that, for parameter values derived from the scientific literature, researchers acting to maximise their fitness should spend most of their effort seeking novel results and conduct small studies that have only 10-40% statistical power. As a result, half of the studies they publish will report erroneous conclusions. Current incentive structures are in conflict with maximising the scientific value of research; we suggest ways that the scientific ecosystem could be improved.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere2000995
Number of pages14
JournalPLoS Biology
Issue number11
Publication statusPublished - 10 Nov 2016

Structured keywords

  • Brain and Behaviour
  • Tobacco and Alcohol


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