As we are preparing a call for papers on Biomaterials science research we reached out to our four Guest Editors for their views on the issues underlying reproducibility and transparency in the field.
Kimberly is an Associate Professor in the Department of Engineering at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She carries out research on Nanotechnology, Nanobiotechnology, Nanomaterials and Rapid Diagnostics. Her lab focuses on studying the interface between nanoparticles and biomolecules to engineer biomedical materials. She joined the PLOS ONE editorial board in 2017.
Michael is the Benjamin Mayhugh Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Minnesota. His research is focused on using 3D printing for regenerative bioelectronics, smart prosthetics, biomedical devices, and human-machine interfaces. He has been a member of the editorial board of PLOS ONE since 2017
Aldo is Professor of Biomaterials and Head of the Institute of Biomaterials at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg. His multidisciplinary research group studies bioactive glasses and coatings, ceramics and polymer/glass composites for biomedical applications such as tissue engineering scaffolds and drug delivery. Aldo is an Academic Editor for PLOS ONE having joined our board in 2017.
Jie is a Professor of Orthopedics at the University of Massachusetts Medical School (UMMS). Her research focus is on the design of functional Biomaterials and stem cell-based bone and cartilage tissue regeneration, as well as identifying drug delivery targets for osteoarthritis. She has been a member of the editorial board of PLOS ONE since 2017
The main focus of this call for papers is the how to make Biomaterials research repeatable and the reporting more transparent in line with the principles of Open Science. Why do you think this is important for the field and what extra value does it provide?
Kimberly – Too many times people publish these great findings but leave out a key detail in the experimental protocol. Sometimes this is just because the protocol is not written thoroughly enough, but sometimes authors do this to give themselves an edge over the competition. Biomaterials science and engineering is such a broad field and cuts across multiple disciplines, so everyone is coming from different backgrounds, where they all have different areas of expertise and also “customs” for publishing protocols. Thus, having open protocols and procedures would help facilitate progress in the field overall (i.e. someone from an engineering background working on a material can do that key bio-conjugation step).
Michael – Biomaterials is a complex emerging field at the interface of bioengineering, biology, and materials, and therefore having particularly stringent standards of repeatability and transparency in research would significantly benefit the community and industrial applications of the novel science being produced.
Aldo – The reproducibility and transparency of data in a scientific paper is relevant in every field of science, including materials science and by the same token Biomaterials. Using and measuring the properties of non-Biomaterials (e.g. their mechanical behaviour or electrical conductivity) can be considered fairly straightforward, as there are standardised methods and there is less complexity compare to in vivo work where you are interacting with a biological system (e.g. cytocompatibility, antibacterial behaviour, regenerative ability, etc.). The biology aspect makes Biomaterials more challenging and consequently it’s very important to have access to and to provide transparent data.
Jie – For clinical translation, biomaterial reproducibility is critical. As a research community, we all share the frustration of not being able to repeat some of the reported studies – these poorly executed/reported studies waste time/resources and damage our collective reputation of biomaterial scientists.
In which way do you think publishing experimental protocols on platforms such as protocols.io could help the field become more transparent?
Kimberly – I think if people put a protocol out there, it lowers the barriers for having the procedure be perfect, and also opens the doors to others to give input on how a protocol can be improved. Input from other people will certainly increase the probability of a procedure being successful as everyone has slightly different tweaks that they tend to do experimentally. Thus, the incentive for scientists becomes more focused on working together to achieve a goal as opposed to being the single lab who figured out how to do this one specialized thing. As a result, I think it will encourage people to be more up front about things not working perfectly for a protocol or procedure that they have devised.
Michael – Transparency involves providing the community with as many resources as possible to enable repeatability, and protocol platforms are one important mechanism for achieving this, in ways that may not be fully encompassed within the manuscript itself.
Aldo – If we openly provide more details for every single protocol we can enhance the transparency of the field. These deposition platforms can be used by researchers to both confirm and challenge results. It’s advantageous for both the writer of the protocol and the user.
As an author yourself what are some of the tools you’ve used to ensure the success and reproducibility of an experiment?
Kimberly – I make sure that I can see an experiment fail a bunch of times before it is successful, as it gives me a sense of how reproducible it is. This is actually useful as sometimes seeing an experiment not work a lot of times also helps you understand what about it needs to be adjusted to make it work. Best case scenario is if there is another lab out there that I know well that is using our papers to do a procedure we developed in the lab.
Michael – Having as many eyes on the problem as possible, with regular group meetings and collaborators to challenge the data and results.
Jie – For designing in vivo studies, guidelines such as ARRIVE are helpful to follow.
What do you think the main barriers/challenges are for researchers wanting to ensure the reproducibility of their work?
Kimberly – Often this is not something you can publish —publications require coming up with a novel technique. Making something reproducible is not something that is often publishable on its own. Ensuring reproducibility ultimately means having it done in other labs. This requires a level of trust between the two labs, otherwise it can seem as if the lab trying to reproduce the work is challenging the first lab, especially if it does not work. There are many cases in the community where trying to reproduce something in someone else’s lab is done in a confrontational way—while their intentions may be good, this is definitely not conducive to the overall goal. This can make PIs very paranoid.
Michael – The biggest challenge is communication. These emerging resources will improve communication among all parties which will improve scientific rigour.
Aldo – There may be an ‘education’ issue as more established researchers may think that the deposition of a protocol is just a burden and time consuming. They may not fully appreciate the need for transparency as younger scientists do. The community however will not continue to consider this a bonus, but a requirement. Also, for researchers coming from the field of materials science, rather than cell biology, these principles of openness and transparency may be fairly new, so we need to see how the community will respond.
Jie – I think fostering the right culture is the key. Starting from research mentors setting the right tone (putting quality before speed), students recognising that building up the reputation of doing solid science will pay off in the long run, and journal reviewers/editors not letting sloppy science get published.
Do you have any advice/tips for early career researchers when preparing their protocols and papers?
Kimberly – Make sure it is readable and follow-able. If you can, have someone else who may not be in your same exact field give it a read through to see if it is understandable.
Michael – Let the results evolve on their own and speak for themselves and present them as they are, rather than trying to force them into a pre-determined story.
Aldo – Be transparent from the very first paper you write, have your protocols deposited right from the beginning.
Interested in submitting your Biomaterials research to PLOS ONE?
Take a look at our call for papers announcement. We look forward to seeing your work!