On Questionable Research Practices

Ecologists and evolutionary biologists are tarred and feathered along with many scientists who are guilty of questionable research practices. So says this article in “The Conservation” on the web:
https://theconversation.com/our-survey-found-questionable-research-practices-by-ecologists-and-biologists-heres-what-that-means-94421?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=twitterbutton

Read this article if you have time but here is the essence of what they state:

“Cherry picking or hiding results, excluding data to meet statistical thresholds and presenting unexpected findings as though they were predicted all along – these are just some of the “questionable research practices” implicated in the replication crisis psychology and medicine have faced over the last half a decade or so.

“We recently surveyed more than 800 ecologists and evolutionary biologists and found high rates of many of these practices. We believe this to be first documentation of these behaviours in these fields of science.

“Our pre-print results have certain shock value, and their release attracted a lot of attention on social media.

  • 64% of surveyed researchers reported they had at least once failed to report results because they were not statistically significant (cherry picking)
  • 42% had collected more data after inspecting whether results were statistically significant (a form of “p hacking”)
  • 51% reported an unexpected finding as though it had been hypothesised from the start (known as “HARKing”, or Hypothesising After Results are Known).”

It is worth looking at these claims a bit more analytically. First, the fact that more than 800 ecologists and evolutionary biologists were surveyed tells you nothing about the precision of these results unless you can be convinced this is a random sample. Most surveys are non-random and yet are reported as though they are a random, reliable sample.

Failing to report results is common in science for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with questionable research practices. Many graduate theses contain results that are never published. Does this mean their data are being hidden? Many results are not reported because they did not find an expected result. This sounds awful until you realize that journals often turn down papers because they are not exciting enough, even though the results are completely reliable. Other results are not reported because the investigator realized once the study is complete that it was not carried on long enough, and the money has run out to do more research. One would have to have considerable detail about each study to know whether or not these 64% of researchers were “cherry picking”.

Alas the next problem is more serious. The 42% who are accused of “p-hacking” were possibly just using sequential sampling or using a pilot study to get the statistical parameters to conduct a power analysis. Any study which uses replication in time, a highly desirable attribute of an ecological study, would be vilified by this rule. This complaint echos the statistical advice not to use p-values at all (Ioannidis 2005, Bruns and Ioannidis 2016) and refers back to complaints about inappropriate uses of statistical inference (Armhein et al. 2017, Forstmeier et al. 2017). The appropriate solution to this problem is to have a defined experimental design with specified hypotheses and predictions rather than an open ended observational study.

The third problem about unexpected findings hits at an important aspect of science, the uncovering of interesting and important new results. It is an important point and was warned about long ago by Medewar (1963) and emphasized recently by Forstmeier et al. (2017). The general solution should be that novel results in science must be considered tentative until they can be replicated, so that science becomes a self-correcting process. But the temptation to emphasize a new result is hard to restrain in the era of difficult job searches and media attention to novelty. Perhaps the message is that you should read any “unexpected findings” in Science and Nature with a degree of skepticism.

The cited article published in “The Conversation” goes on to discuss some possible interpretations of what these survey results mean. And the authors lean over backwards to indicate that these survey results do not mean that we should not trust the conclusions of science, which unfortunately is exactly what some aspects of the public media have emphasized. Distrust of science can be a justification for rejecting climate change data and rejecting the value of immunizations against diseases. In an era of declining trust in science, these kinds of trivial surveys have shock value but are of little use to scientists trying to sort out the details about how ecological and evolutionary systems operate.

A significant source of these concerns flows from the literature that focuses on medical fads and ‘breakthroughs’ that are announced every day by the media searching for ‘news’ (e.g. “eat butter”, “do not eat butter”). The result is almost a comical model of how good scientists really operate. An essential assumption of science is that scientific results are not written in stone but are always subject to additional testing and modification or rejection. But one result is that we get a parody of science that says “you can’t trust anything you read” (e.g. Ashcroft 2017). Perhaps we just need to repeat to ourselves to be critical, that good science is evidence-based, and then remember George Bernard Shaw’s comment:

Success does not consist in never making mistakes but in never making the same one a second time.

Amrhein, V., Korner-Nievergelt, F., and Roth, T. 2017. The earth is flat (p > 0.05): significance thresholds and the crisis of unreplicable research. PeerJ  5: e3544. doi: 10.7717/peerj.3544.

Ashcroft, A. 2017. The politics of research-Or why you can’t trust anything you read, including this article! Psychotherapy and Politics International 15(3): e1425. doi: 10.1002/ppi.1425.

Bruns, S.B., and Ioannidis, J.P.A. 2016. p-Curve and p-Hacking in observational research. PLoS ONE 11(2): e0149144. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0149144.

Forstmeier, W., Wagenmakers, E.-J., and Parker, T.H. 2017. Detecting and avoiding likely false-positive findings – a practical guide. Biological Reviews 92(4): 1941-1968. doi: 10.1111/brv.12315.

Ioannidis, J.P.A. 2005. Why most published research findings are false. PLOS Medicine 2(8): e124. doi: 10.1371/journal.pmed.0020124.

Medawar, P.B. 1963. Is the scientific paper a fraud? Pp. 228-233 in The Threat and the Glory. Edited by P.B. Medawar. Harper Collins, New York. pp. 228-233. ISBN 978-0-06-039112-6

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