Improving the way research is done: the UK Reproducibility Network

Written by Natalie Hunter, Graduate Trainee – Research Landscape at Wellcome Trust


As a graduate at Wellcome, I get the opportunity to be involved in so many exciting initiatives, including working with the people aiming to tackle some of the biggest challenges in science and research.


Attending the first annual meeting of the UK Reproducibility Network (UKRN) last Friday is a great example of this. UKRN is a grassroots, researcher-led organisation with the aim of improving scientific integrity, with a particular focus on the reproducibility of research. There’s been a lot written about the so-called ‘reproducibility crisis’ in research recently, but it essentially boils down to this: were the experiments conducted in a non-biased way, blinded where possible? Have all of the results been reported – including negative ones? Were appropriate controls used? Could the study be repeated by somebody else and the same results be found? However, it has become increasingly obvious that a number of papers, some with very influential results, have not been conducted to this standard. For example in some areas such as preclinical cancer research,  studies estimate as many as 70-90% of papers have irreproducible results. This links to the wider problem of research culture we’ve identified an­­d are working on here at Wellcome.


UKRN was founded to increase standards in research. Lead by four researchers – Marcus Munafò (Psychologist, University of Bristol), Laura Fortunato (Anthropologist, University of Oxford), Chris Chambers (Neuroscientist, University of Cardiff) and Malcolm Macleod (Neuroscientist, University of Edinburgh), the network is made up of a steering committee and two groups: Local Network Leads and Stakeholders.


The Local Network Leads are researchers, each representing a university. Together, they provide on-the-ground support within universities to help other researchers and policymakers navigate this complex area. UKRN wants local network leads to create excitement and buzz about doing high quality research. They support for example local ‘Reproducibilitea journal clubs’, where researchers collectively review research papers and discuss methodological issues.


The Stakeholders group is made up of representatives from research-related organisations, including Wellcome, UKRI, MRC, Nature, PLOS, JISC, UK Research Integrity Office, Universities UK and many more. Each organisation contributes small grants to UKRN, including Wellcome. By engaging these two key groups, UKRN aims to achieve both a bottom-up and top-down influence on UK research culture.


I attended the second half of the meeting, which was specifically for the Stakeholders. The focus of this meeting was the work plan for the year ahead. Discussion was lively, ranging from the responsibility of funders like Wellcome to those of journals such as Nature, data sharing and open access policies, the value of ‘metaresearch’ – or ‘research on research’ – and expanding discussions on these issues beyond biomedical science. The incentive structures within academia came up frequently as a key cause for concern. With publishing in a high-impact journal still seen as the key measure of success in science, despite intitives such as DORA, the concern is that pressure to publish could lead researchers to behave less than perfectly. As one attendee said, this is a “systemic issue, which needs a systemic solution”. That’s where UKRN’s strength lies. They have managed to get so many key stakeholders in a room at once to discuss these issues and commit to finding solutions that it feels like real change is on the horizon.


The potential of UKRN is exciting, and there is a sense that it is capitalising on a cultural moment in science right now; those involved feel there is a real appetite for change from a number of directions. But it’s important to remember it’s a very small organisation, with an administrator as the only paid member of staff – everybody else is involved on a purely voluntary basis. There’s only so much an organisation like that can achieve in a year. However the plans UKRN have set out for the next year are bold and ambitious: it will for example continue ongoing work (funded through the Wellcome Research on Research scheme) on linking the registered reports system with funding decisions; it will plan a large conference for next year, bringing together relevant parties for extended conversations and workshops; it will continue to grow its network and build an evidence base for improving research integrity.


So, watch this space – and the UKRN twitter account – as this network will only continue to grow and develop its influence over the coming year, with support from Wellcome and other funders.

Understanding Anorexia – Promoting Life through Prevention

An essay by Caitlin Lloyd.

Emma was an anxious child, always worrying. At thirteen, her anxiety became centered on interactions at school – she was terrified of being judged negatively by classmates. Around this time Emma began dieting, intending to lose just a small amount of weight. It turned out she could do so relatively easily, and enjoyed the sense of achievement resulting from the numbers on the scale going down. Her diet continued, becoming more and more extreme. Emma’s weight plummeted.

Eight years later, having had two inpatient hospital admissions, Emma maintains a dangerously low body weight, achieved by setting strict rules around eating. A daily calorie limit is followed, and foods containing fat and sugar avoided. Eating takes place only at certain times, and each mouthful must be chewed ten times before swallowing. Any deviation from these rules, and the day is ruined.

Emma retook two years at school, falling behind her peers, but secured a place at Durham University to study mathematics. It is difficult to concentrate on her work though, because all Emma can think about is food: what she has eaten; and what she will eat. Her focus on food makes it hard to maintain friendships, and Emma has few. Emma spends university holidays with her family, the time dominated by arguments over food.

Sometimes Emma wishes things were different. But that means eating more, which feels impossible. Deviating from the rules makes Emma unbearably anxious. No amount of support can dispel the intense fear of becoming fat, or feelings of self-disgust that accompany weight-gain.

Emma is fictional but typical of someone with anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder characterised by persistent starvation in the context of a low weight and fear of weight-gain. In the UK it is estimated that as many as one in 25 women will experience anorexia in the course of their lifetime. Men develop anorexia too; roughly one in ten people with anorexia is male.

Anorexia usually develops during adolescence, and has many adverse yet long-lasting physical and mental health consequences. Starvation compromises the function of almost all major organ systems, and feelings of despair increase the risk of suicide; anorexia has the highest death rate of any mental health disorder.

Full recovery from anorexia is a lengthy process, and unfortunately not common. Treatments exist but not one is consistently effective. Fewer than half of those diagnosed with anorexia make a full recovery, and relapse rates are high – around 30-40% of people fall back into the disorder’s grip following initial recovery. For some, weight-gain is sustained, but a strict diet and overconcern with eating and weight remains, severely impacting quality of life.

The difficulty treating anorexia makes effective prevention vital. For this we need to target the factors that cause anorexia, requiring knowledge of what those factors are. My research investigates whether anxiety disorders play a causal role in anorexia development, to help us understand whether it would be beneficial to address anxiety in young people to prevent eating disorders.

It has long been suggested that the starvation of anorexia reduces anxiety. This would make dieting helpful (in this narrow sense) to those experiencing anxiety symptoms, encouraging the dieting to continue. Anxiety disorders and anorexia often co-occur. But correlation is not causation, and determining cause-and-effect is notoriously challenging.

As an example, for anxiety to cause anorexia development, anxiety must precede anorexia. Existing findings support this, however studies have tended to ask people with anorexia to recall the time before their illness developed. Experiencing anorexia may affect memory recall; to try and explain how their anorexia developed, someone with anorexia might believe themselves to have been more anxious in childhood than they actually were. In this case the conclusion that anxiety causes anorexia may be invalid. Many sources of potential error exist in research, meaning that many findings could be inaccurate, at least to some degree.

Different research methods have different strengths and limitations, and are thus prone to different biases. This can be used to our advantage: if findings across studies of different research methods point to the same conclusion, we can be more confident the conclusion is correct. I am using a variety of research methods, each designed to minimise the potential for erroneous conclusions, to determine the role of anxiety in anorexia. If a causal role is supported across the different studies, trialing interventions designed to reduce anxiety for eating disorder prevention is encouraged. If not, the search for other factors to target for improved eating disorder prevention continues.

We are at an early stage in understanding anorexia, but we do know that many people with the illness become ill at a young age, with their whole lives ahead – like Emma. My research matters because it aims to stop people losing their lives, and quality of life, to anorexia.