Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Theory of Constraints: Opinion

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Theory of Constraints: Opinion

Article excerpt

The pre-registration of study designs flies in the face of how science works. It must be resisted, argues Sophie Scott.

As concern grows about questionable practices and outright misconduct in the life sciences, the pre-registration of study designs and hypotheses is being wrongly touted as the panacea.

The campaign's latest push came in an open letter to The Guardian last month written by Chris Chambers, research fellow at Cardiff University, and Marcus Munafo, professor of biological psychology at the University of Bristol, which was supported by more than 80 signatories.

Drawing on a paper that asked psychologists to self-report their own dubious behaviour, they argue that large numbers of life scientists cherry-pick data, hide null results, fail to employ adequate statistical power and reinvent the aims of studies after they have been completed to make it look as though unexpected findings were predicted.

They claim that pre-registration, which would involve journals accepting future papers based on the design of experiments rather than their results, would greatly reduce such questionable practices since the incentive to indulge in them to make papers more publishable would be substantially reduced.

However, there are numerous problems with the idea. Limiting more speculative aspects of data interpretation risks making papers more one- dimensional in perspective. And the commitment to publish with the journal concerned would curtail researchers' freedom to choose the most appropriate forum for their work after they have considered the results.

With no results to go on, reviewers would be more likely than ever to rely on reputation, which would count against junior scientists. Unsympathetic ones would also be handed the chance to veto studies at the outset. In addition, the requirement to refine studies and their interpretation prior to data collection would prevent us from learning from our mistakes along the way.

Moreover, in my fields (cognitive neuroscience and psychology), a significant proportion of studies would simply be impossible to run on a pre-registration model because many are not designed simply to test hypotheses. Some, for instance, are observational, while many of the participant populations introduce significant sources of complexity and noise; as introductions to psychology often point out, humans are very dirty test tubes. …

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