Research Assistants or Budding Scientists? A Review of 96 Undergraduate Student Projects at the Koestler Parapsychology Unit
Watt, Caroline, The Journal of Parapsychology
Particularly in Europe, academics with research interests in parapsychology are taking up posts within higher education institutions. Naturally these researchers become involved with teaching students and, as a result, many student projects are being conducted under their supervision. This raises the question of the evidential status of such projects. For instance, might they contain unreported flaws? Should they be included in meta-analyses of psi research? Furthermore, as there are far more student projects than there are parapsychologists, does the database of student projects form a significant file-drawer for parapsychology if these projects remain unpublished? To some extent these questions may be answered by taking into consideration the pedagogical context of the student projects: does the supervisor maintain strict control so that the student is essentially a research assistant, or is the student given some freedom to develop his or her scientific curiosity but also to make mistakes (and--we hope-learn from them)? This paper aims to encourage consideration of these important issues for modern-day parapsychology by looking in detail at the undergraduate student projects conducted at the Koestler Parapsychology Unit (KPU).
The KPU is a research group situated within the School of Philosophy, Psychology, and Language Sciences at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. The KPU initially grew tip around the Koestler Professor of Parapsychology, Robert Morris, (2) who held this position from 1985 until his death in 2004. The KPU consists of teaching staff, research staff, and postgraduate students whose area of interest and expertise is parapsychology and the psychology of anomalous experiences and beliefs. While Bob Morris was Koestler Professor, KPU researchers included (in alphabetical order) Deborah Delanoy, Peter Lamont, Julie Milton, Fiona Steinkamp, Paul Stevens, and Caroline Watt.
KPU members have always played a role in teaching psychology undergraduate and postgraduate students. The undergraduate psychology course at the University of Edinburgh is 4 years long. The single most substantial piece of work that undergraduate students produce is their final-year project and thesis. In this, students are able to apply their methodological and statistical training to topics in which they have a particular interest, under the supervision of staff with relevant expertise. Students can choose their thesis topic from a selection offered by staff. They are also free to approach staff with their own research idea, in which case the staff member may agree to supervise, so the degree to which the project topic is driven by a supervisor's own research agenda varies depending on his or her pedagogical and research goals. Some may exert strict control so that the project addresses a tightly specified question in their research program and is methodologically sound. In this case, the student is essentially acting in the role of research assistant or coinvestigator. Others may prefer to encourage students to think creatively and follow their scientific curiosity. Here the project is less likely to contribute to a systematic research program, and--in the hands of less able students--study quality may suffer. The project is written up as a thesis of around 11,000 words that is graded and contributes towards the student's overall degree grade.
To illustrate the issues raised by student parapsychology projects, this paper presents a descriptive overview of the final-year projects that have been supervised by KPU staff since its inception. These may act as a large number of pilot projects that might help guide future research. As these final-year projects are mostly unpublished, they may also place published studies in a wider context with respect to possible file-drawer effects. The KPU-supervised projects consist of two types: those that include a psi task and those that do not. As space is limited, I will only briefly describe the non-psi projects before going into the psi projects in greater detail. …