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Animal Methods Bias: What is it and what can we do about it?

Animal Methods Bias: What is it and what can we do about it?

Until recently, many scientists researching human health and diseases have been trained to use animals to answer research questions. Some researchers will have even been told using animals is an outright necessity to answer questions about human health.

However, science has progressed and there are now many non-animal methods that can be used in medical research.

This is great news, right?

It’s not that simple. Despite emerging evidence that non-animal methods can more closely replicate human conditions, animal research remains the norm. In fact, scientists are being asked to conduct animal research, on top of the non-animal research they’ve already conducted, if they want to be published in academic journals. In a recent survey over a third of respondents said that they had been asked by reviewers to conduct animal research that was not part of their original project.

One in five respondents had actually gone on to carry out those additional animal tests for the purpose of getting published.

And that’s Animal Methods Bias: the “preference for animal-based methods where they may not be necessary or where non-animal methods may already be suitable”.

As part of the Coalition to Illuminate and Address Animal Methods Bias, we’re gathering further evidence for, and working to tackle, this systemic issue.

Publication is one of the key ways an academic researcher’s performance is measured. Pay and career advancement often depend, in large part, on the quality and quantity of a scientist’s published papers. If research using certain methods, like animal ‘models’, is more likely (or believed more likely) to be published, it will encourage researchers to prioritise that method. It will also discourage them from exploring new non-animal methods.

Why is there a bias towards animal methods in academic publishing?

One reason may be that academics who review journals tend to be senior researchers, so were often trained when there was less evidence supporting non-animal methods. This can lead to distrust of innovative methods they’re less familiar with. Also, newer methods are, well, newer, so, by definition, there is less published evidence using them in the first place, which can exacerbate this lack of trust, even if the evidence that does exist is of high quality.

This leads to a catch-22: Reviewers aren’t familiar with non-animal methods, so ask for animal methods they are familiar with to ‘validate’ the studies. Because less non-animal research is published, researchers and reviewers don’t become familiar with it and animal research remains the norm.

How can we encourage academic journals to give non-animal methods an equal chance of publication?

That’s where the Coalition steps in. We’re an international collaboration involving scientists and advocacy groups working together to change the status quo.

Our goals are to:

  • Gather evidence about Animal Methods Bias.
  • Raise awareness of Animal Methods Bias and its impact on both academic quality and the uptake of new methods.
  • Provide tools and support to mitigate the effects of this phenomenon.

The Coalition has published an author’s guide for scientists to maximise their chances of publication and learn how to push back on requests for unnecessary additional animal data. In addition, raising awareness is the first step to encourage reviewers to self-reflect on their own potential biases. Alongside this, we are looking at possible resources or support for journals.

At the end of the day reducing any unconscious bias leads to better science and is in everyone’s interest.

We’ve also begun investigating this bias in the peer review of grant proposals. On May 16th, we’re running a workshop to explore this with scientists and funders

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