Would it help scientists, peer-reviewers, editors and writers (including reporters) if research papers included a section outlining the weaknesses of the work presented in a research paper?

Last month I covered a paper analysing media reporting of subsequent and related findings, published in PLoS ONE. Towards the end of this paper was a section titled Limitations. In this the author had outlined what they considered were weaknesses or limitations of their work.

Off-hand I can’t recall seeing a paper with such as section, at least not recently.[1]

When putting forward an argument for a case—what a research paper is—researchers should probe and test their argument, rather than ‘just’ offer supporting elements. Insisting a Limitations section be present may aid authors to be more critical of what they present, encouraging them to elaborate explicitly where they think it is weak.

It might assist peer-reviewers in assessing the paper and, perhaps, also be a place for outstanding issues from reviewers to be noted.

For wider coverage, e.g. in the media, the contents of the Limitations section might alert science writers and journalists to limitations of the work and hence things not to say about it.

What might be placed within a Limitations section should ideally already be present in the paper, for example in the Discussion. The main effect may be to simply draw these out more clearly, but you might also hope it might also encourage stronger papers and clearer communication to those less familiar with the technical issues of that particular niche.

What do you think?


1. Perhaps it is common in other fields? I typically read molecular biology and computational biology papers, with the odd foray into other areas.

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What aspects of biology need to be explained better?