Let me get this out of the way at the beginning so I don’t come across as a total curmudgeon. I think fMRI is great. My lab uses it. We have grants that include it. We publish papers about it. We combine it with TMS, and we’ve worked on methods to make that combination better. It’s the most spatially precise technique for localizing neural function in healthy humans. The physics (and sheer ingenuity) that makes fMRI possible is astonishing.
But fMRI is a troubled child. On Tuesday I sent out a tweet: “fMRI = v expensive method + chronically under-powered designs + intense publication pressure + lack of data sharing = huge fraud incentive.” This was in response to the news that a post doc in the lab of Hans Op de Beeck has admitted fraudulent behaviour associated with some recently retracted fMRI work. This is a great shame for Op de Beeck, who it must be stressed is entirely innocent in the matter. Fraud can strike at the heart of any lab, seemingly at random. The thought of unknowingly inviting fraud into your home is the stuff of nightmares for PIs. It scares the shit out of me.
I got some interesting responses to my tweet, but the one I want to deal with here is from Nature editor Noah Gray, who wrote: “I'd add ‘too easily over-interpreted.’ So what to do with this mess? Especially when funding for more subjects is crap?”
There is a lot we can do. We got ourselves into this mess. Only we can get ourselves out. But it will require concerted effort and determination from researchers and the positioning of key incentives by journals and funders.
The tl;dr version of my proposed solutions: work in larger research teams to tackle bigger questions, raise the profile of a priori statistical power, pre-register study protocols and offer journal-based pre-registration formats, stop judging the merit of science by the journal brand, and mandate sharing of data and materials.
Problem 1: Expense. The technique is expensive compared to other methods. In the UK it costs about £500 per hour of scanner time, sometimes even more.
Solution in brief: Work in larger research teams to divide the cost.
Solution in detail: It’s hard to make the technique cheaper. The real solution is to think big. What do other sciences do when working with expensive techniques? They group together and tackle big questions. Cognitive neuroscience is littered with petty fiefdoms doing one small study after another – making small, noisy advances. The IMAGEN fMRI consortium is a beautiful example of how things could be if we worked together.
Problem 2: Lack of power. Evidence from structural brain imaging implies that most fMRI studies have insufficient sample sizes to detect meaningful effects. This means they not only have little chance of detecting true positives, there is also a high probability that any statistically significant differences are false. It comes as no surprise that the reliability of fMRI is poor.
Solution in brief: Again, work in larger teams, combining data across centres to furnish large sample sizes. We need to get serious about statistical power, taking some of the energy that goes into methods development and channeling it into developing a priori power analysis techniques.
Solution in detail: Anyone who uses null hypothesis significance testing (NHST) needs to care about statistical power. Yet if we take psychology and cognitive neuroscience as a whole, how many studies motivate their sample size according to a priori power analysis? Very few, and you could count the number of basic fMRI studies that do this on the head of a pin. There seem to be two reasons why fMRI researchers don’t care about power. The first is cultural: to get published, the most important thing is for authors to push a corrected p value below .05. With enough data mining, statistical significance is guaranteed (regardless of truth) so why would a career-minded scientist bother about power? The second is technical: there are so many moving parts to an fMRI experiment, and so many little differences in the way different scanners operate, that power analysis itself is very challenging. But think about it this way: if these problems make power analysis difficult then they necessarily make the interpretation of p values just as difficult. Yet the fMRI community happily embraces this double standard because it is p<.05, not power, that gets you published.
Problem 3: Researcher ‘degrees of freedom’. Even the simplest fMRI experiment will involve dozens of analytic options, each which could be considered legal and justifiable. These researcher degrees of freedom provide an ambiguous decision space for analysts to try different approaches and see what “works” best in producing results that are attractive, statistically significant, or fit with prior expectations. Typically only the outcome that "worked" is then published. Exploiting these degrees of freedom also enables researchers to present “hypotheses” derived from the data as though they were a priori, a questionable practice known as HARKing. It’s ironic that the fMRI community has put so much effort into developing methods that correct for multiple comparisons while completely ignoring the inflation of Type I error caused by undisclosed analytic flexibility. It’s the same problem in different form.
Solution in brief: Pre-registration of research protocols so that readers can distinguish hypothesis testing from hypothesis generation, and thus confirmation from exploration.
Solution in detail: By pre-specifying our hypotheses and analysis protocol we protect the outcome of experiments from our own bias. It’s a delusion to pretend that we aren’t biased, that each of us is somehow a paragon of objectivity and integrity. That is self-serving nonsense. To incentivize pre-registration, all journals should offer pre-registered article formats, such as Registered Reports at Cortex. This includes prominent journals like Nature and Science, which have a vital role to play in driving better science. At a minimum, fMRI researchers should be encouraged to pre-register their designs on the Open Science Framework. It’s not hard to do. Here’s an fMRI pre-registration from our group.
Arguments for pre-registration should not be seen as arguments against exploration in science – instead they are a call for researchers to care more about the distinction between hypothesis testing (confirmation) and hypothesis generation (exploration). And to those critics who object to pre-registration, please don’t try to tell me that fMRI is necessarily “exploratory” and “observational” and that “science needs to be free, dude” while in same breath submitting papers that state hypotheses or present p values. You can't have it both ways.
Problem 4: Pressure to publish. In our increasingly chickens-go-in-pies-come-out culture of academia, “productivity” is crucial. What exactly that means or why it should be important in science isn’t clear – far less proven. Peter Higgs made one of the most important discoveries in physics yet would have been marked as unproductive and sacked in the current system. As long as we value the quantity of science that academics produce we will necessarily devalue quality. It’s a see saw. This problem is compounded in fMRI because of the problems above: it’s expensive, the studies are underpowered, and researchers face enormous pressure to convert experiments into positive, publishable results. This can only encourage questionable practices and fraud.
Solution in brief: Stop judging the quality of science and scientists by the number of publications they spew out, the “rank” of the journal, or the impact factor of the journal. Just stop.
Solution in detail: See Solution in brief.
Problem 5: Lack of data sharing. fMRI research is shrouded in secrecy. Data sharing is unusual, and the rare cases where it does happen are often made useless by researchers carelessly dumping raw data without any guidance notes or consideration of readers. Sharing of data is critical to safeguard research integrity – failure to share makes it easier to get away with fraud.
Solution in brief: Share and we all benefit. Any journal that publishes fMRI should mandate the sharing of raw data, processed data, analysis scripts, and guidance notes. Every grant agency that funds fMRI studies should do likewise.
Solution in detail: Public data sharing has manifold benefits. It discourages and helps unmask fraud, it encourages researchers to take greater care in their analyses and conclusions, and it allows for fine-grained meta-analysis. So why isn’t it already standard practice? One reason is that we’re simply too lazy. We write sloppy analysis scripts that we’d be embarrassed for our friends to see (let alone strangers); we don’t keep good records of the analyses we’ve done (why bother when the goal is p<.05?); we whine about the extra work involved in making our analyses transparent and repeatable by others. Well, diddums, and fuck us – we need to do better.
Another objection is the fear that others will “steal” our data, publishing it without authorization and benefiting from our hard work. This is disingenuous and tinged by dickishness. Is your data really a matter of national security? Oh, sorry, did I forget how important you are? My bad.
It pays to remember that data can be cited in exactly the same way papers can – once in the public domain others can cite your data and you can cite theirs. Funnily enough, we already have a system in science for using the work of others while still giving them credit. Yet the vigor with which some people object to data sharing for fear of having their soul stolen would have you think that the concept of “citation” is a radical idea.
To help motivate data sharing, journals should mandate sharing of raw data, and crucially, processed data and analysis scripts, together with basic guidance notes on how to repeat analyses. It’s not enough just to share the raw MR images – the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience tried that some years ago and it fell flat. Giving someone the raw data alone is like handing them a few lumps of marble and expecting them to recreate Michelangelo’s David.
What happens when you add all of these problems together? Bad practice. It begins with questionable research practices such as p-hacking and HARKing. It ends in fraud, not necessarily by moustache-twirling villains, but by desperate young scientists who give up on truth. Journals and funding agencies add to the problem by failing to create the incentives for best practice.
Let me finish by saying that I feel enormously sorry for anyone whose lab has been struck by fraud. It's the ultimate betrayal of trust and loss of purpose. If it ever happens to my lab, I will know that yes the fraudster is of course responsible for their actions and is accountable. But I will also know that the fMRI research environment is a damp unlit bathroom, and fraud is just an aggressive form of mould.