I reposted a quote from a paper on twitter this morning entitled “The earth is flat (p > 0.05): Significance thresholds and the crisis of unreplicable research.” The quote, which is worth repeating, was “reliable conclusions on replicability…of a finding can only be drawn using cumulative evidence from multiple independent studies.”
An esteemed colleague (Daniël Lakens @lakens) responded “I just reviewed this paper for PeerJ. I didn’t think it was publishable. Lacks structure, nothing new.”
Setting aside the typical bromide that I mostly curate information on twitter so that I can file and read things later, the last clause “nothing new” struck a nerve. It reminded me of some unappealing conclusions that I’ve arrived at about the reproducibility movement that lead to a different conclusion—that it is very, very important that we post and repost papers like this if we hope to move psychological science towards a more robust future.
From my current vantage, producing new and innovative insights about reproducibility is not the point. There has been almost nothing new in the entire reproducibility discussion. And, that is okay. I mean, the methodologists (whether terroristic or not) have been telling us for decades that our typical approach to evaluating our research findings is problematic. Almost all of our blogs or papers have simply reiterated what those methodologists told us decades ago. Most of the papers and activities emerging from the reproducibility movement are not coming up with “novel, innovative” techniques for doing good science. Doing good science necessitates no novelty. It does not take deep thought or creativity to pre-register a study, do a power analysis, or replicate your research.
What is different this time is that we have more people’s attention than the earlier discussions. That means, we have a chance to make things better instead of letting psychology fester in a morass of ambiguous findings meant more for personal gain than for discovering and confirming facts about human nature.
The point is that we need to create an environment in which doing science well—producing cumulative evidence from multiple independent studies—is the norm. To make this the norm, we need to convince a critical mass of psychological scientists to change their behavior (I wonder what branch of psychology specializes in that?). We know from our initial efforts that many of our colleagues want nothing to do with this effort (the skeptics). And, these skeptical colleagues count in their ranks a disproportionate number of well-established, high status researchers who have lopsided sway in the ongoing reproducibility discussion. We also know that another critical mass is trying to avoid the issue, but seem to be grudgingly okay with taking small steps like increasing their N or capitulating to new journal requirements (the agnostics). I would even guess that the majority of psychological scientists remain blithely unaware of the machinations of scientists concerned with reproducibility (the naïve) and think that it is only an issue for subgroups like social psychology (which we all know is not true). We know that many young people are entirely sympathetic to the effort to reform methods in psychological science (the sympathizers). But, these early career researchers face withering winds of contempt from their advisors or senior colleagues and problematic incentives for success that dictate they continue to pursue poorly designed research (e.g., the prototypical underpowered series of conceptual replication studies, in which one roots around for p < .05 interaction effects).
So why post papers that reiterate these points? Even if those papers are derivative or maybe not as scintillating as we would like? Why write blogs that repeat what others have said for decades before?
Because, change is hard.
We are not going to change the minds of the skeptics. They are lost to us. That so many of our most highly esteemed colleagues are in this group simply makes things more challenging. The agnostics are like political independents. Their position can be changed, but it takes a lot of lobbying and they often have to be motivated through self-interest. I’ve seen an amazingly small number of agnostics come around after six years of blog posts, papers, presentations, and conversations. These folks come around one talk, one blog, or one paper at a time. And really, it takes multiple messages to get them to change. The naïve are not paying attention, so we need to repeat the same message over and over and over again in hopes that they might actually read the latest reiteration of Jacob Cohen. The early career researchers often see clearly what is going on but then must somehow negotiate the landmines that the skeptics and the reproducibility methodologists throw in their way. In this context, re-messaging, re-posting, re-iterating serves the purpose to create the perception that doing things well is supported by a critical mass of colleagues.
Here’s my working hypothesis. In the absence of wholesale changes to incentive structures (grants, tenure, publication requirements at journals), one of the few ways we will succeed in making it the norm to “produce cumulative evidence from multiple independent studies” is by repeating the reproducibility message. Loudly. By repeating these messages we can drown out the skeptics, move a few agnostics, enlighten the naïve, and create an environment in which it is safe for early career researchers to do the right thing. Then, in a generation or two psychological science might actually produce, useful, cumulative knowledge.
So, send me your huddled, tired essays repeating the same messages about improving our approach to science that we’ve been making for years and I’ll post, repost, and blog about them every time.
Brent W. Roberts