Meta-Research: Using Science to Study Itself

By Emma Wilson


Research helps us discover amazing things. We can research anything: from the tiny cells that make up our body to planets in far-away galaxies. But can we research the scientific process itself? The answer is yes, we can, and that’s exactly what my job is all about.


I’m what’s called a Meta-Researcher– and no that has nothing to do with Facebook. Meta-research is all about optimising the way we do research … by conducting more research. By investigating what we do currently, and evaluating what works and what doesn’t, we can improve and make future research even better. Meta-research has helped us develop best practices in research, such as randomising samples into experimental groups, reporting our experiments clearly so that others can replicate our experiment, and sharing our data so it’s available for others to find and use.


Becoming a meta-researcher wasn’t something I set out to do when I left high school. I wanted to be a neuroscientist – after a brief stint of wanting to become a forensic pathologist – and I studied Neuroscience at university. I also knew I wanted a career in research, but about halfway through my degree. I started to feel unsure about working in a lab. At the same time, I got really into coding and I wondered if I’d prefer to do something related to computers instead.


During the final year of my degree, I got the opportunity to work on a meta-research project. The project allowed me to bring together many different skills – neuroscience, experimental design, coding, data science, and even library skills – and I was immediately hooked. Once I graduated, I was able to get a job as a Research Assistant and eventually applied for a PhD to continue doing meta-research, which is where I am now.


Meta-research is a new field, expanding field and I anticipate that there will be lots of future opportunities for careers in this area. My advice to young people interested in a career in research is to pursue what you’re passionate about but always keep on the lookout for new things to try – you’ll likely find something you never knew existed before.


For teachers interested in incorporating meta-research into their lessons, I’d recommend trying out this protocol drawing exercise produced by Reproducibility4Everyone. The activity is designed to get you thinking about the importance of reporting your experiments in enough detail for someone else to repeat exactly what you have done, and the drawings produced from it are always hilarious.


Reproducibility4Everyone – Protocol Sharing (activity on slides 65-68)