A recent special issue in Social Psychology adds fuel to the debate on data transparency and faulty research. Following an innovative approach, the journal published failed and successful replications instead of typical research papers. A Cambridge scholar, whose paper could not be replicated, now feels treated unfairly by the “data detectives.” She says that the replicators had aimed to “declare the verdict” that they failed to reproduce her results. Her response raises important questions for replications, reproducibility and research transparency.
The special issue of the journal Social Psychology (Volume 45, Number 3 / 2014) contains only replication studies. All of these studies were pre-registered: authors had to send in proposals of what study they want to re-analyze. Once accepted as a project, the results would be included in the journal – whether they found errors or not. By pre-registering replication projects for the issue, editors Brian Nosek and Daniël Lakens wanted to make sure that replications would also be published if they confirmed the previous findings.
This is an important effort, since it seems that journals hesitate to publish replication studies; and if they do so, they prefer those that find errors. When all replication studies – failed and successful – get attention, then we can “change incentive structures for conducting replications” (see the editorial).
This is how pre-registration worked:
- The guest editors of the special issue called for proposals of replication studies; these proposals contained a detailed plan for research design and re-analysis of an article
- The proposals were sent out for peer review to evaluate how important a re-analysis of a specific topic is, and how ‘sound’ the methodology of the replication is
- The original authors of the study to be replicated were invited to be one of the reviewers of that proposal (not the final replication paper) at that stage
Concerns about the replication projects
The articles in the journal are ‘direct replications,’
which use the same data to duplicate or re-analyze the original work (and not conceptual replications that collect new data), which
is the repetition of an experiment using exactly the same procedure, i.e. same set-up and statistical analysis (in contrast, a conceptual replication would test the same hypothesis as the original work, but use a different experimental set-up, data and methods).
The focus on ‘direct replications’ means that original authors and their research design, data, methods, models and interpretation were checked closely. This made it personal to some original authors.
For example, a Cambridge scholar’s paper “With a clean conscience: cleanliness reduces the severity of moral judgments” (pdf) could not be replicated, and she was unhappy. In a blog post original author Simone Schnall, had the following concerns (I did not check if all of this is correct):
- she provided all data to the replicators, but she was not allowed to review their results later on before they were published
- she wanted to publish a commentary to the failed replication, which was initially denied by the editors (and later allowed)
- no one replicated the replicators’ data – she claims there were errors in the papers of the special issue
- she says that there was no peer-review process of the final manuscripts as in other journals, only the review of the pre-registered proposals
- she feels that “only errors get reported and highly publicized, when in fact the majority of research is solid and unproblematic”
- some authors whose papers could not be replicated faced reputational damage
[Update: Brian Nosek has now published (with permission of all involved) the email conversation between the editors and Schnall for more transparency in the debate. This will be useful for future conversations and replication procedures for editors, replicators and original authors.]
Why is this personal?
The blog post of the original author shows how having your work replicated can become very personal. Schnall calls those who replicate work “data detectives” who “target” published work. She writes:
The most stressful aspect has not been to learn about the “failed” replication by Johnson, Cheung & Donnellan, but to have had no opportunity to make myself heard. There has been the constant implication that anything I could possibly say must be biased and wrong because it involves my own work. I feel like a criminal suspect who has no right to a defense and there is no way to win: The accusations that come with a “failed” replication can do great damage to my reputation, but if I challenge the findings I come across as a “sore loser.” (…)
Of course replications are much needed and as a field we need to make sure that our findings are reliable. But we need to keep in mind that there are human beings involved …”
Reputational damage and bullying
Schnall writes that the special issue led to “defamation of my work.” She was asked about the failed replication of her work in a grant interview; and a peer-reviewer for another of her articles questioned the validity of her overall work. She now spends more time trying to correct the record (that her results were in fact correct) instead of doing new research.
She specifically feels bullied because she criticized the results of the replicators.
There now is a recognized culture of “replication bullying:” Say anything critical about replication efforts and your work will be publicly defamed in emails, blogs and on social media, and people will demand your research materials and data, as if they are on a mission to show that you must be hiding something.
What does this mean for replication studies
This case shows that there is still no established culture and procedures to reproduce published work. The special issue was a great move forward, but it stirred a lot of unhappiness and debate on how to go about it in the future. Especially, we need to find ways to
- support re-analysis by providing incentives: journals should regularly publish successful and failed replications; there should be no need for a special issue with huge publicity in the future (thanks to this special issue this might be implemented in some fields now)
- make sure that re-analysis is checked by peer-review: as a minimum, we should apply the same standards as to the original work; or should we be more strict with replication studies and ask another set of peer-reviewers to replicate the replicators?
- prevent making it personal: replicators should write about the “research question” and not the author (this is usually done!); it might still be difficult to prevent original authors from feeling attacked – writing papers is to some degree always a personal affair; if journals publish more successful replications then original authors might have less reason to be anxious
How to involve the original authors
A major problem for Schnall was apparently that she was invited to see the proposal for the replication of her work, but not to comment at later stages or to review the final paper and data (according to her blog; there are other reports).
I am not sure if original authors always have to be included in the process. It should be possible to reproduce work without their help. For that purpose, all journals should require authors to upload all data (not just ask authors to send them on request), full descriptions of the data and procedures etc. in an online supplement. Ideally, anyone should be able to reproduce the work independently without ever contacting the author.
In addition, it is not clear to me why an original author should have the right to analyze the replication and review the manuscript before publication. Once the original paper (and data) is published and enters the scientific dialogue, it is not the ‘property’ of the original author, but belongs to all. In the past, authors have answered to replications of their work, which I call a replication chain – but after publication.
The publicity around the project means that those authors whose work was put on the spot might suffer unnecessary negative attention. It also means that a discussion takes place, which is important.
The twitter debate
On twitter, there is quite a harsh debate. For example, the editors of the special issue were addressed as “shameless little bullies” and “replication police,” while others strongly support the replication project saying that some psychologists “don’t understand how important replication is.” Check out @BrianNosek, @DanTGilbert, @lakens.
Special Issue of Social Psychology on Replication (all articles open access)
An Experience with a Registered Replication Project, by Simone Schnall, University of Cambridge
Replication effort provokes praise—and ‘bullying’ charges, Science, 23 May 2014: Vol. 344 no. 6186 pp. 788-789 (behind paywall, unfortunately)
Random Reflections on Ceiling Effects and Replication Studies, by Brent Donnellan (who is one of the replicators of Schnall’s work)
The Guardian: Psychology’s ‘registration revolution’
More links and materials on this debate with additional commentaries by those involved.
[Update] Andrew Gelman picked up the case on his blog and the comments there are quite interesting.