Questionable research practices surprisingly common

May 25, 2012 By Anna Mikulak

(Medical Xpress) -- Not all scientific misconduct is flat-out fraud. Much falls into the murkier realm of “questionable research practices.” A new study finds that in one field, psychology, these practices are surprisingly common. The survey of more than 2,000 research psychologists, published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, finds that most have engaged in at least one of the questionable practices at some point in their career.

“There have been some very widely publicized cases of outright ,” says Leslie K. John of Harvard Business School. For example, a South Korean researcher achieved world-wide fame for cloning human stem cells—and infamy later when it turned out he had faked his data. “That’s very clear-cut. It’s an academic felony. But the focus of this paper isn’t on these clear-cut cases; it’s about the more subtle ways of manipulating the truth.” Along with her coauthors, George Loewenstein and Drazen Prelec, John designed a survey that was e-mailed to 5,964 psychological scientists. 2,155 responded. The researchers asked the questions using a method that attempts to make people more honest, in part by giving them an incentive to tell the truth.

They found that a surprising number of people had engaged in questionable research practices. For example, half the scientists admitted to having only reported the experiments that gave the results you wanted. This may not sound dramatic, and it’s not as bad as making up data, but it gives a skewed sense of the research; if scientists only report the results that support their hypotheses, they may leave out an important part of the picture. Other questionable practices include deciding whether to exclude data from a study after looking to see whether doing so affects the results (43.4 percent of respondents) and reporting an unexpected finding as if it had been expected all along (35 percent). And 1.7 percent of scientists admitted to having faked their data.

It’s impossible to tell from the study how often these things happened; they could be part of the day-to-day practice of science or people could be admitting to something they did once in college. “I think these are very high rates, but we don’t know whether this is people’s standard operating procedure or whether they’re one-off activities,” John says.

“Does this mean we can’t trust psychologists? No. No, this does not say that,” John says. “But there are clearly some problems.” One possibility might be for psychological scientists to consider instituting a system like that starting to be used in medical research, in which journals will only accept articles for publication if the study was registered before it began, with details about how it would be executed. “I think psychologists are motivated to do good science,” John says. “But these findings are disconcerting and signal the need for reform.”

Explore further: Is there a hidden bias against creativity?

Related Stories

Is there a hidden bias against creativity?

November 18, 2011
CEOs, teachers, and leaders claim they want creative ideas to solve problems. But creative ideas are rejected all the time. A new study, which will be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science, a journal of ...

Sexism and gender inequality

October 28, 2011
(Medical Xpress) -- Individual beliefs don’t stay confined to the person who has them; they can affect how a society functions. A new study published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological ...

Being ignored hurts, even by a stranger

January 25, 2012
(Medical Xpress) -- Feeling like you’re part of the gang is crucial to the human experience. All people get stressed out when we’re left out. A new study published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association ...

Are we bad at forecasting our emotions? It depends on how you measure accuracy

January 26, 2012
(Medical Xpress) -- How will you feel if you fail that test? Awful, really awful, you say. Then you fail the test and, yes, you feel bad—but not as bad as you thought you would. This pattern holds for most people, research ...

Deliberate practice: necessary but not sufficient

October 24, 2011
(Medical Xpress) -- Psychological scientist Guillermo Campitelli is a good chess player, but not a great one. “I’m not as good as I wanted,” he says. He had an international rating but not any of the titles ...

The first step to change: Focusing on the negative

November 11, 2011
If you want people to change the current system, or status quo, first you have to get them to notice what’s wrong with it. That’s the idea behind a new study to be published in Psychological Science, a journal of ...

Recommended for you

After searching 12 years for bipolar disorder's cause, team concludes it has many

December 15, 2017
Nearly 6 million Americans have bipolar disorder, and most have probably wondered why. After more than a decade of studying over 1,100 of them in-depth, a University of Michigan team has an answer - or rather, seven answers.

Suicidal thoughts rapidly reduced with ketamine, finds study

December 14, 2017
Ketamine was significantly more effective than a commonly used sedative in reducing suicidal thoughts in depressed patients, according to researchers at Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC). They also found that ketamine's ...

Do bullies have more sex?

December 14, 2017
Adolescents who are willing to exploit others for personal gain are more likely to bully and have sex than those who score higher on a measure of honesty and humility. This is according to a study in Springer's journal Evolutionary ...

Children's screen-time guidelines too restrictive, according to new research

December 14, 2017
Digital screen use is a staple of contemporary life for adults and children, whether they are browsing on laptops and smartphones, or watching TV. Paediatricians and scientists have long expressed concerns about the impact ...

Eating together as a family helps children feel better, physically and mentally

December 14, 2017
Children who routinely eat their meals together with their family are more likely to experience long-term physical and mental health benefits, a new Canadian study shows.

The iceberg model of self-harm

December 14, 2017
Researchers have created a model of self-harm that shows high levels of the problem in the community, especially in young girls, and the need for school-based prevention measures.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.