25 April 2012

Questionable Research Practices: The "Steroids of Scientific Competition"

A new research paper just out in the journal Psychological Science by John et al. seeks to quantify the incidence of what are called "questionable research practices" in psychological research.  They write:
Although cases of overt scientific misconduct have received significant media attention recently (Altman, 2006; Deer, 2011; Steneck, 2002, 2006), exploitation of the gray area of acceptable practice is certainly much more prevalent, and may be more damaging to the academic enterprise in the long run, than outright fraud. Questionable research practices (QRPs), such as excluding data points on the basis of post hoc criteria, can spuriously increase the likelihood of finding evidence in support of a hypothesis. Just how dramatic these effects can be was demonstrated by Simmons, Nelson, and Simonsohn (2011) in a series of experiments and simulations that showed how greatly QRPs increase the likelihood of finding support for a false hypothesis. QRPs are the steroids of scientific competition, artificially enhancing performance and producing a kind of arms race in which researchers who strictly play by the rules are at a competitive disadvantage. QRPs, by nature of the very fact that they are often questionable as opposed to blatantly improper, also offer considerable latitude for rationalization and self-deception.
John et al. used multiple methods to assess the prevalence of questionable research practices among psychology researchers.  They found a surprising high prevalence of such practices in their study.

They note that some questionable research practices are indeed, questionable, but that the researchers surveyed also found many of the practices to be unjustifiable:
As noted in the introduction, there is a large gray area of acceptable practices. Although falsifying data (Item 10 in our study) is never justified, the same cannot be said for all of the items on our survey; for example, failing to report all of a study’s dependent measures (Item 1) could be appropriate if two measures of the same construct show the same significant pattern of results but cannot be easily combined into one measure. Therefore, not all self-admissions represent scientific felonies, or even misdemeanors; some respondents provided perfectly defensible reasons for engaging in the behaviors. Yet other respondents provided justifications that, although self categorized as defensible, were contentious (e.g., dropping dependent measures inconsistent with the hypothesis because doing so enabled a more coherent story to be told and thus increased the likelihood of publication). It is worth noting, however, that in the follow-up survey—in which participants rated the behaviors regardless of personal engagement—the defensibility ratings were low. This suggests that the general sentiment is that these behaviors are unjustifiable.
Even so, there are incentives in the research world to engage in questionable research practices:
We assume that the vast majority of researchers are sincerely motivated to conduct sound scientific research. Furthermore, most of the respondents in our study believed in the integrity of their own research and judged practices they had engaged in to be acceptable. However, given publication pressures and professional ambitions, the inherent ambiguity of the defensibility of “questionable” research practices, and the well-documented ubiquity of motivated reasoning (Kunda, 1990), researchers may not be in the best position to judge the defensibility of their own behavior. This could in part explain why the most egregious practices in our survey (e.g., falsifying data) appear to be less common than the relatively less questionable ones (e.g., failing to report all of a study’s conditions). It is easier to generate a post hoc explanation to justify removing nuisance data points than it is to justify outright data falsification, even though both practices produce similar consequences.
The authors suggest that the prevalence of questionable research practices may help to explain the finding the many studies cannot be replicated:
QRPs can waste researchers’ time and stall scientific progress, as researchers fruitlessly pursue extensions of effects that are not real and hence cannot be replicated. More generally, the prevalence of QRPs raises questions about the credibility of research findings and threatens research integrity by producing unrealistically elegant results that may be difficult to match without engaging in such practices oneself. This can lead to a “race to the bottom,” with questionable research begetting even more questionable research. If reforms would effectively reduce the prevalence of QRPs, they not only would bolster scientific integrity but also could reduce the pressure on researchers to produce unrealistically elegant results.
I think I am on safe ground when I say that the problem of questionable research practices goes well beyond the discipline of psychology.