Saturday 5 August 2017

Why I hate the ‘tone debate’ in psychology and you should too

There is an extremely boring, seemingly indestructible, debate going on in psychology about the ‘tone’ of scientific debate in our field. The root of this peculiar argument is that the nature of some discussion surrounding open science and reform is apparently too negative, too critical, and too personal, and that this pushes people away from doing better science.

The entire debate is so nauseatingly self-absorbed. It really pains me to see so many smart colleagues who I respect and admire devoting so much of their time to being concerned about this issue. Hey, it’s their time, who am I to judge. But what a waste it is of our collective energy, and I wish people could see why.

A few unfiltered thoughts, and then I will never speak of this again.

1. There’s this idea that open science will attract more 'disciples' if it comes across as having a more positive, inclusive tone. Goodness me, what a load of honking bullshit this is. Open science will attract individual adopters for three reasons: (1) when scientists grow a conscience and appreciate that their public mission demands transparency and reproducibility; (2) when scientists decide to take advantage of individual incentives (career and social) for being open (e.g. Registered Reports, joining SIPS etc.); (3) when funders, journals and institutions make it a requirement. All of these are in progress. The cold embrace of open science by gatekeepers and regulators is in the post – it is only a matter of time before transparent, reproducible practices will be required if you want to spend public money. That’s why I tell early career researchers to get ahead now because the ground is shifting under your feet, and I am one of the people shifting it. What ‘tone’ we set in public discourse about science (and open science) is thoroughly irrelevant to all of this; indeed, thinking that this changes anything is nothing more than hubristic navel gazing.

2. Open science isn't an evangelist movement that needs to save souls from damnation. Yes it is a political (r)evolution. Yes, the more people adopt it the better. But you won’t get them to do it through the tone of critical discussion or by preaching. We get scientists to adopt open practices by changing the system to make openness attractive and essential.  

3. Leave Satire Alone. If we are so thin skinned that we can’t laugh at ourselves from time to time (and, jesus, even learn something from it), we are already lost. 

4. Don’t fall into the trap of being concerned about tone on behalf of others. No, you are not the voice of early career researchers or the vulnerable or Nixon's silent majority. All of these communities can speak for themselves, and they do, especially in the flat landscape of social media. Yes, your anecdotes about some researcher who really wanted to be open but was put off by a sharp twitter discussion count for precisely nada.

5. Psychology is a discipline that has no problem praising the living daylights out of individuals when they publish some stunning result or get a big grant. Hey guess what: critique follows the same rules. You live by the sword...

6. Ignoring the ‘tone debate’ isn’t the same as turning a blind eye to abuse. There is painfully little evidence that any of the much touted tone infractions constitute abuse, or that abuse in the open science community is any greater than the baseline in academia. It isn’t the job of the open science community to solve all problems in academia.

7. Follow Wheaton’s Law but don’t let demands on civility stand in the way of delivering the criticism that is required in service of science. Sometimes this will require setting a tone that risks causing offence. That's ok, so long as it is in service of the mission. I say this repeatedly, but remember who you serve. It isn’t yourself and it isn’t your colleagues. It isn’t early career researchers or vulnerable scientists, or scientists without a lot of resources. Science serves the public who pay for science. Ask yourself how our debates about ‘tone’ appear to the people who fund the work we do. Ask yourself how pathetic this all looks and why other sciences aren’t doing it. Then snap out of it.

8. Finally, and this is the kicker: Discussions about ‘tone’ were originally orchestrated (rather shrewdly, it must be said) by opponents of reform as a way of diverting attention from systemic changes to science that (a) threaten the organic structures that underpin their own power and (b) would expose their own sloppy research practices. We are in an intensely political period and whenever you argue about tone you are playing your opponents’ game by your opponents’ rules. While we tear ourselves sideways worrying about such trival nonsense, they are smirking from their thrones.

This is the last thing I will ever say about the ‘tone’ debate. We need to change the way psychological science works, not the way some people talk about psychological science.

Thursday 27 July 2017

Open-ended, Open Science

In this special guest post, Rob McIntosh, associate editor at Cortex and long-time member of the Registered Reports editorial team, foreshadows a new article type that will celebrate scientific exploration in its native form.

Exploratory Reports will launch next month and, now, we need your input to get it right.

Chris has kindly allowed me to crash his blog, to publicise and to gather ideas and opinions for a new article type at Cortex. The working name is Exploratory Reports. As far back as 2014, in his witterings and twitterings, Chris trailered a plan for Cortex to develop a format for open-ended science, a kind of louche, relaxed half-cousin to the buttoned-up and locked-down Registered Reports. Easier tweeted than done. We are now preparing to launch this brave new format, but even as we do so, we are still wrestling with some basic questions. Does it have a worthwhile role to play in the publishing landscape? Can it make a meaningful contribution to openness in science? What should its boundaries and criteria be? And is there a better name than Exploratory Reports?

Visitors to this blog will have a more-than-nodding familiarity with misaligned incentives in science, with the ‘deadly sin’ of hidden flexibility, and with the damage done to reliability when research conducted in an open-ended, see-what-we-can-find way, is written into the record as a pre-planned test of specific hypotheses. No one doubts that exploratory research has a vital role to play in empirical discovery and hypothesis generation, nor that it can be rigorous and powerful (see recent blog discussions here and here). But severe problems can arise from a failure to distinguish between exploratory and confirmatory modes of enquiry, and most perniciously from the misrepresentation of exploratory research as confirmatory.

A major driver of this misrepresentation is the pervasive idealisation of hypothesis-testing, throughout our scientific training, funding agencies, and journals. Statistical confirmation (or disconfirmation) of prior predictions is inferentially stronger than the ‘mere’ delineation of interesting patterns, and top journals prefer neat packages of strong evidence with firm impactful conclusions, even if our actual science is often more messy and… exploratory. Given a more-or-less-explicit pressure to publish in a confirmatory mode, it is unsurprising that individual scientists more-or-less-wittingly resort to p-hacking, HARKing, and other ‘questionable research practices’.

Regulars of this blog will need no further education on such QRPs, or on the mighty and multi-pronged Open Science movement to reform them. Still less will you need reminding of the key role that study pre-registration can play by keeping researchers honest about what was planned in advance. Pre-registration does not preclude further exploration of the data, but it keeps this clearly distinct from the pre-planned aspects, eliminating p-hacking, HARKing, and several other gremlins, at a stroke. The promise of enhanced truth value earns pre-registered studies an Open Practices badge at a growing number of journals, and it has even been suggested that there should be an automatic bonus star in the UK Government’s Research Excellence Framework (where stars mean money).

This is fine progress, but it does little to combat the perceived pre-eminence of confirmatory research, one of the most distorting forces in our science. Indeed, a privileged status for pre-registered studies could potentially intensify the idealisation of the confirmatory mode, given that pre-registration is practically synonymous with a priori hypothesis testing. A complementary strategy would therefore be for journals to better value and serve more open-ended research, in which data exploration and hypothesis generation can take precedence over hypothesis-testing. A paper that is openly exploratory, which shows its working and shares its data, is arguably as transparent in its own way as a pre-registered confirmatory study. One could even envisage an Open Practices badge for explicitly exploratory studies. 

Some journal editors may believe that it is typically inappropriate to publish exploratory work. But this is not the case at Cortex, where the field of study (brain-and-behaviour) is relatively uncharted, where many research questions are open-ended (e.g. What are the fMRI or EEG correlates of task X? What characterises patient group Y across test battery Z?), and where data collection is often costly because expensive technologies are involved or a rare or fleeting neuropsychological condition is studied. It is hard to estimate how much of the journal’s output is really exploratory because, whilst some authors have the confidence to make exploratory work explicit, others may still dress it in confirmatory clothing. If publication is their aim, then they are wise to do so, because the Action Editor or reviewers could be unsympathetic to an exploratory approach.

Hence, a new article type for exploratory science, where pattern-finding and hypothesis generation are paramount, and where the generative value of a paper can even outweigh its necessary truth value. A dedicated format is a commitment to the centrality of exploratory research in discovery. It also promotes transparency, because the incentives to misrepresentation are reduced, and the claims and conclusions can be appropriate to the methods. Some exploratory work might provide strong enough evidence to boldly assert a new discovery, but most will make provisional cases, seeding testable hypotheses and predictions for further (confirmatory) studies. The main requirements are that the work should be rigorous, novel, and generative.

Or that is the general idea. The devil, as ever, is in the detail. Will scientists – as authors, reviewers and readers - engage with the format? What should exploratory articles look like, and can we define clear guidelines for such an open-ended and potentially diverse format? How do we exercise the quality control to make this a high-status format of value to the field, not a salvage yard for failed experiments, or a soapbox for unfettered speculation? Below, a few of the questions keeping us awake at night are unpacked a little further. Your opinions and suggestions on these questions, and any aspect of this venture, would be most welcome. 

1. Scope of the format. At the most restrictive end, the format would be specific for studies that take an exploratory approach to open-ended questions. Less restrictive definitions might allow for experimental work with no strong a priori predictions, or even for experiments that had prior predictions but in which the most interesting outcomes were unanticipated. At the most inclusive end, any research might be eligible that was willing to waive all claims dependent upon pre-planning. Are there clear boundaries that can be drawn? 

2. Exploration and review. A requirement for submission to this format will be that the full data are uploaded at the point of submission, sufficient to reproduce the analyses reported. To what extent should reviewers, with access to the data, be allowed to recommend/insist that further analyses, of their own suggestion, should be included in the final paper? 

3. Statistical standards. Conventional significance testing is arguably meaningless in the exploratory mode, and it has even been suggested that this format should have no p-values at all. There will be a strong emphasis on clear data visualisation, showing (where feasible) complete observations. But some means of quantifying the strength of apparent patterns will still be required, and it may be just too radical to exclude p values altogether. When using conventional significance testing, should more stringent criteria for suggestive and significant evidence be used? More generally, what statistical recommendations would you make for this format, and what reporting standards should be required (e.g. confidence intervals, effect sizes, adjusted and non-adjusted coefficients etc.)? 

4. Evidence vs. theory. Ideally, a good submission presents a solid statistical case from a large dataset, generating novel hypotheses, making testable predictions. The reality is often liable to be more fragmentary (e.g. data from rare neuropsychological patients may be limited, and not easily increased). Can weaker evidence be acceptable in the context of a novel generative theoretical proposal, provided that the claims do not exceed the data? 

5. The name game. The working title for this format has been Exploratory Reports. The ambition is to ‘reclaim’ the term ‘exploratory’ from a slightly pejorative sense it has acquired in some circles. Let’s make exploration great again! But does this set up too much of an uphill struggle to make this a high-status format; and is there anyway a better, fresher term (Discovery Reports; Open Research)?

Rob will oversee this new article format when it launches next month. Please share your views in the comments below or you can feed back directly via email to Rob or Chris, or on twitter.

Thursday 1 June 2017

The Saboteur

“You’re our insurance policy”, DC had said. “Our last chance. If the worst happens, you are going to drive a bomb into Brexit”.

“If Remain wins, you win – I’ll quit before the next GE and you’ll stand as PM. And if Remain loses, you will still win, for a time, and you'll be an even bigger hero in the long run.” He explains the plan. You accept.

You lay low during the referendum campaign. A few low-key speeches for Remain. Nothing grandiose. Nothing to alienate the Brexiteers.

Then it happens. Leave somehow wins. Boris and Michael, ashen-faced, accept victory as though they’ve been given a week to live.

The Greek tragedy unfolds on cue. Boris and Michael murder each other as they were always destined to. Andrea insults you for being childless. Amateur hour.

You step carefully over their quivering corpses to ascend the throne.

“You’ll keep it simple”, DC explained. “Just slogans and gumpf. Nothing for months. Put the Brexiteers in charge of the ship. They'll flounder all by themselves because the task is impossible”.

You position Boris, Liam and David at the helm. Even competent ministers would struggle, but they are so hopeless you can’t possibly fail.

"Brexit means Brexit". Say it repeatedly. Perfectly vacuous and wastes time while sounding decisive.

A court challenge is issued. Good. You fight it which plays well with the hate rags. At best the courts will weaken Brexit and it chews up even more time.

The courts fail. Annoying. You proceed to the next phase.

“You'll have to push the hardest possible Brexit.”, DC had explained. “You have to neuter UKIP while giving the opposition every chance to weaken it in the Commons and Lords.” 

Corbyn goes along with you. Didn't expect that at all. You handed him soft Brexit on a platter and he batted it away. Always was a Leaver, the silly old fool.

You realise you have the unpleasant task now of issuing Article 50 but it doesn’t matter. Plays well with the papers and the lawyers say it’s revocable anyway. Pure stage show.

“If you get to this point”, said DC, “you might be pushed to more extreme measures. The party will take a hit but we’ll recover - we're the most successful party in the world, afterall.”

You call an election, going back on a promise but this plays well into the narrative you need to create. Brexit on pause at least. Your goal is the darkest and most hidden of secrets: to throw the vote but only just. Political microsurgery.

Nobody knows but you and the tightest of inner circles. It’s an election that can't be lost but you need to win by a small enough margin to derail the train.

“Strong and stable”. Perfect. Easy pickings for opponents who will flip it to "weak and wobbly". Yes. You can play this part.

“If you have to force an election, you’ll need to play the coward and liar to a tee”, DC had warned. “It will hurt, but remember, at the end of all this you’ll go down in history”.

You line up the dominoes. A weak manifesto. A dementia tax to alienate your core older vote. Devoid of costings while attacking opponents for their costings. Double standards galore, and ample rope for the left to hang you with.

The vote is still too high. Reverse a manifesto promise during the campaign. It's never been tried but you need this to be close. Issue angry denials. Refuse to answer direct questions. Refuse to attend debates. 

Refuse to engage at all with voters. Appear bad tempered, limp and incompetent in media interviews. Some will say it looks like you don't want to win but they will never realise just how true that is.

You hate the election campaign but the narrative is working. Corbyn has stepped up at last. The polls are converging. You’ll still win but with luck, you’ll have weakened the Brexiteer’s hands just enough.

Election day comes. Corbyn does well. He plays best when backed into a corner. You still win the most seats but SNP ensures that it’s a hung parliament.

Finally. You can breathe.

Brexit on hold, maybe forever. Soft Brexit at most. The Scots will now vote to remain in the UK. And by now public opinion favours remaining in the EU anyway. You resign. Bomb detonated, agreement with DC met.

Corbyn forms a struggling minority government but he won't last long. He has too many enemies within and your party will be back in charge by 2022.

You leave politics, offering up health reasons.

Now the real work begins: the diaries. You recorded everything. Everything. Every stupid meeting with Boris. Every ridiculous phone call with The Donald. It will be the most explosive political manifesto ever written - how you destroyed the far right from within your own party. They will celebrate you as the hero who saved Britain from Brexit and the UK from Balkanization.

Disclaimer: no I haven't donned a tin foil hat - this is indeed a work of pure fiction. Wouldn't it be entertaining though!

Thursday 13 April 2017

Seven questions about my new book: the Seven Deadly Sins of Psychology

So I wrote a short book about psychology and the open science movement (HOLY CRAP IS THIS REALLY HAPPENING)


Allow me to compose myself. Yes, yes it is.

The book is called The Seven Deadly Sins of Psychology: A Manifesto for Reforming the Culture of Scientific Practice. You can find it at Amazon or Princeton University Press.

The illustration at the top of this post is a mosaic of the extraordinary artwork in the book, created by the richly talented Anastasiya Tarasenko (you can see more of her work here, and she is on twitter too). Each woodcut depicts one of the deadly sins, and there is one virtue as well, making up the eight chapters. I was inspired to pursue this general concept by the imagery in a film called the Ninth Gate in which bookdealer Dean Corso goes searching for a book written by the Devil. The final illustrations here are a marriage between that general concept and Anastasiya's creative genius. 

My friend Pete Etchells said I was rubbish at promoting my book, so I've decided to post a 7-part Q&A about it. Um yeah, I realise this is just me asking myself questions, but I'm a bit of a bastard, even to myself.


1. Why did you decide to write this book?
Over the last fifteen years I‘ve become increasingly fed up with the “academic game” in psychology, and I strongly believe we need to raise standards to make our research more transparent and reliable. As a psychologist myself, one of the key lessons I’ve learned is that there is a huge difference between how the public thinks science works and how it actually works. The public have this impression of scientists as objective truth seekers on a selfless mission to understand nature. That’s a noble picture but bears little resemblance to reality. Over time, the mission of psychological science has eroded from something that originally was probably quite close to that vision but has now become a contest for short-term prestige and career status, corrupted by biased research practices, bad incentives and occasionally even fraud.

Many psychologists struggle valiantly against the current system but they are swimming against a tide. I trained within that system. I understand how it works, how to use it, and how it can distort your thinking. After 10 years of “playing the game” I realised I didn’t like the kind of scientist I was turning into, so I decided to try and change the system and my own practices – not only to improve science but to help younger scientists avoid my predicament. At its heart this book lays out my view of how we can reinvigorate psychology by adopting an emerging philosophy called “open science”. Some people will agree with this solution. Many will not. But, above all, the debate is important to have.

2. It sounds like you’re quite skeptical about science generally
Even though I’m quite critical about psychology, the book shouldn’t be seen as anti-science – far from it. Science is without doubt the best way to discover the truth about the world and make rational decisions. But that doesn’t mean it can’t or shouldn’t be improved. We need to face the problems in psychology head-on and develop practical solutions. The stakes are high. If we succeed then psychology can lead the way in helping other sciences solve similar problems. If we fail then I believe psychology will fade into obscurity and become obsolete.

3. Would it matter if psychology disappeared? Is it really that important?
Psychology is a huge part of our lives. We need it in every domain where it is important to understand human thought or behaviour, from treating mental illness, to designing traffic signs, to addressing global problems like climate change, to understanding basic (but extraordinarily complex) mental functions such as how we see or hear. Understanding how our minds work is the ultimate journey of self-discovery and one of the fundamental sciences. And it’s precisely because the world needs robust psychological science that researchers have an ethical obligation to meet the high standards expected of us by the public. If, to some of my colleagues, that sounds rather high-handed and moralistic, well, it is. Suck it up guys.

4. Who do you think will find your book most useful?
I have tried to tailor the content for a variety of different audiences, including anyone who is interested in psychology or how science works. Among non-scientists, I think the book may be especially valuable for journalists who report on psychological research, helping them overcome common pitfalls and identify the signs of bad or weak studies. At another level, I’ve written this as a call-to-arms for my fellow psychologists and scientists in closely aligned disciplines, because we need to act collectively in order to fix these problems. And the most important readers of all are the younger researchers and students who are coming up in the current academic system and will one day inherit psychological science. We need to get our house in order to prepare this generation for what lies ahead and help solve the difficulties we inherited.

5. So what exactly are the problems facing psychology research?
I’ve identified seven major ills, which (a little flippantly, I admit) can be cast as seven deadly sins. In order they are Bias, Hidden Flexibility, Unreliability, Data Hoarding, Corruptibility, Internment, and Bean Counting. I won’t ruin the suspense by describing them in detail, but they all stem from the same root cause: we have allowed the incentives that drive individual scientists to fall out of step with what’s best for scientific advancement. When you combine this with the intense competition of academia, it creates a research culture that is biased, closed, fearful and poorly accountable – and just as a damp bathroom encourages mould, a closed research culture becomes the perfect environment for cultivating malpractice and fraud.

6. It all sounds pretty bad. Is psychology doomed?
No. And I say this emphatically: there is still time to turn this around. Beneath all of these problems, psychology has a strong foundation; we’ve just forgotten about it in the rat race of modern academia. There is a growing movement to reform research practices in psychology, particularly among the younger generation. We can solve many problems by adopting open scientific practices – practices such as pre-registering study designs to reduce bias, making data and study materials as publicly available as possible, and changing the way we assess scientists for career advancement. Many of these problems are common to other fields in the life sciences and social sciences, which means that if we solve them in psychology we can solve them in those areas too. In short, it is time for psychology to grow up, step up, and take the lead.

We'll know we've succeeded in this mission when our published results become reliable and repeatable. As things currently stand, there is a high chance that any new result published in a psychology journal is a false discovery. So we’ll know we’ve cracked these problems when we can start to believe the published literature and truly rely on it. When this happens, and open practices become the norm, the closed practices and weak science that define our current culture will seem as primitive as alchemy.

7. What's wrong with your book?
Probably a lot, and that is for the community to judge. As a matter of necessity, any digestible perspective on this issue is going to contain a lot of the author's personal views. Much of what I've written stems from my own experience training up and working in science, and reasonable people can disagree about the nature of the problems and the best solutions. The field is also moving very quickly, which makes writing a book particularly challenging. On a more specific note, I have a public errata listing misprints that weren't quite caught in time before the first batch of publishing. If you bought a first edition you may come across some or all of these (a rather optimistic economist friend of mine advises you to hang on to those first edition copies, because you never know what they might be worth some day...yes...well...). And of course, if you find an additional one, let me know and it shall be amended at the next available opportunity.

I hope you enjoy it.

Thursday 16 March 2017

Should all registered clinical trials be published as Registered Reports?

Last night I asked you brilliant folks to give me your strongest counterarguments to the following proposition: that all registered clinical trials should be published in journals only if submitted as Registered Reports (RRs).

It was a really interesting discussion, and thanks to everyone who engaged. Here are the reasons that were put forward. 

My tl;dr verdict: I’m still waiting for a good reason!

1. RRs require presenting more methodological detail than standard clinical trial registration and so expose authors to a potential competitive disadvantage.
This isn’t really a scientific objection (or least, it’s a very weak scientific objection) but I understand the strategic argument. My response is that if all registered trials have to published as RRs then everyone faces the same disadvantage, so there is no relative disadvantage.

2. Clinical trial registration is sufficient for controlling bias.
It’s not. Around 50% of clinical trials never report results, ~14% are registered after data collection is complete, and somewhere between 30-85% engage in hidden outcome switching. With depressing statistics like this, how can standard trial registration be seen as anything close to sufficient?

3. OK, clinical trial registration used to be insufficient but it’s sufficient now because requires authors to specify a primary outcome measure.
Still nope. The COMPARE project finds that authors routinely engage in hidden outcome switching even when primary outcome measures are specified. There is no logical reason why requiring something that already fails to prevent hidden outcome switching should prevent hidden outcome switching.

4. Ok fine, but a signed declaration at submission that outcomes haven’t been switched would solve hidden outcome switching.
It would probably have some effect, but then it remains easy to specify an outcome sufficiently vaguely to enable one of several variables to be cherry picked as the primary outcome measure, and so allow researchers to tick this box even when they switched. And even if this measure did reduce outcome switching, it would not reduce publication bias. RRs reduce both hidden outcome switching and publication bias. So why should any kind of declaration be preferable to all registered clinical trials being published as RRs?

5. Small companies often live or die by the results of trials. The RR model presents a risk to their livelihoods if they have to publicly admit that an intervention failed to work.
The model suggested here applies only to registered trials. If companies want to do their own internal unregistered trials and choose what to publish (where they can) based on the results, that’s up to them. The argument here is that the price of attaining credibility within the pages of a reputable peer-reviewed journal should be to register the trial as a RR.

6. RRs involve one paper arising per protocol. But a single protocol may need to produce multiple papers addressing different questions. This is also important to support the careers of early career researchers.
This sounds to me like an argument for salami slicing in the interests of careerism. But I accept that in the reality of academia, careers matter. My initial reaction is that if the research question and method are complementary enough to go in the same protocol, why aren’t the results complementary enough to go in the same paper? The easy solution to this is to separate protocols that address different questions into different RRs. That way there are as many papers to publish as there are separate research questions.

7. The RR model doesn’t force authors to publish their results. Therefore there is no guarantee that it will prevent publication bias.
This is the strongest objection so far, but even so it is virtually guaranteed to be less of a problem for RRs than under the status quo. Authors of RRs are indeed free to withdraw their papers after the protocol is provisionally accepted, but doing so triggers the publication of at least part of the registered protocol plus a reason for the withdrawal. So what is an author going to say, that they withdrew their peer-reviewed RR because the trial outcomes were negative? I suspect the research community (including the reviewers who invested time in assessing the protocol) would take a dim view on such a strategy, and it is probably for this reason that there has yet to be a single case of a withdrawn RR at any journal. In any case, if this were considered to be a serious risk, it would be straightforward to strengthen the RR model for clinical trials so that it requires authors to publish the results. If every journal published registered clinical trials only as RRs, and all RRs bore this mandate, virtually all registered trials would be published.

So that’s seven reasons, none of which I think are particularly strong.

Got anything stronger?