Metaresearchers study how research is done—and why it goes wrong

Given the billions of dollars the world invests in science each year, it’s surprising how few researchers study science itself. But their number is growing rapidly, driven in part by the realization that science isn’t always the rigorous, objective search for knowledge it is supposed to be. Editors of medical journals, embarrassed by the quality of the papers they were publishing, began to turn the lens of science on their own profession decades ago, creating a new field now called “journalology.” More recently, psychologists have taken the lead, plagued by existential doubts after many results proved irreproducible. Other fields are following suit, and metaresearch, or research on research, is now blossoming as a scientific field of its own.

For some, studying how the sausage is made is a fascinating intellectual pursuit in itself. But other metaresearchers are driven by a desire to clean up science’s act. Their work has spawned many initiatives to make research more robust and efficient, from preregistering studies and establishing reporting standards to the recent push to make study data freely available for others to explore. Metaresearchers sometimes need a thick skin; not all scientists are grateful when their long-standing practices are questioned. And whether the reforms actually work has become a study object in itself.

Metaresearchers are giving their fellow scientists lots of things to think about. But their underlying message is simple: If we understand better what we’re doing, we might be able to do it better.

Special package: Science under scrutiny