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The pros and cons of research preregistration

Research transparency is a hot topic these days in academia, especially with respect to the replication or reproduction of published results.

There are many initiatives that have recently sprung into operation to help improve transparency, and in this regard political scientists are taking the lead. Research transparency has long been a focus of effort of The Society for Political Methodology, and of the journal that I co-edit for the Society, Political Analysis. More recently the American Political Science Association (APSA) has launched an important initiative in Data Access and Research Transparency. It’s likely that other social sciences will be following closely what APSA produces in terms of guidelines and standards.

One way to increase transparency is for scholars to “preregister” their research. That is, they can write up their research plan and publish that prior to the actual implementation of their research plan. A number of social scientists have advocated research preregistration, and Political Analysis will soon release new author guidelines that will encourage scholars who are interested in preregistering their research plans to do so.

However, concerns have been raised about research preregistration. In the Winter 2013 issue of Political Analysis, we published a Symposium on Research Registration. This symposium included two longer papers outlining the rationale for registration: one by Macartan Humphreys, Raul Sanchez de la Sierra, and Peter van der Windt; the other by Jamie Monogan. The symposium included comments from Richard Anderson, Andrew Gelman, and David Laitin.

In order to facilitate further discussion of the pros and cons of research preregistration, I recently asked Jaime Monogan to write a brief essay that outlines the case for preregistration, and I also asked Joshua Tucker to write about some of the concerns that have been raised about how journals may deal with research preregistration.

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The pros of preregistration for political science

By Jamie Monogan, Department of Political Science, University of Georgia


Howard Tilton Library Computers, Tulane University by Tulane Public Relations. CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Study registration is the idea that a researcher can publicly release a data analysis plan prior to observing a project’s outcome variable. In a Political Analysis symposium on this topic, two articles make the case that this practice can raise research transparency and the overall quality of research in the discipline (“Humphreys, de la Sierra, and van der Windt 2013; Monogan 2013).

Together, these two articles describe seven reasons that study registration benefits our discipline. To start, preregistration can curb four causes of publication bias, or the disproportionate publishing of positive, rather than null, findings:

  1. Preregistration would make evaluating the research design more central to the review process, reducing the importance of significance tests in publication decisions. Whether the decision is made before or after observing results, releasing a design early would highlight study quality for reviewers and editors.
  2. Preregistration would help the problem of null findings that stay in the author’s file drawer because the discipline would at least have a record of the registered study, even if no publication emerged. This will convey where past research was conducted that may not have been fruitful.
  3. Preregistration would reduce the ability to add observations to achieve significance because the registered design would signal in advance the appropriate sample size. It is possible to monitor the analysis until a positive result emerges before stopping data collection, and this would prevent that.
  4. Preregistration can prevent fishing, or manipulating the model to achieve a desired result, because the researcher must describe the model specification ahead of time. By sorting out the best specification of a model using theory and past work ahead of time, a researcher can commit to the results of a well-reasoned model.

Additionally, there are three advantages of study registration beyond the issue of publication bias:

  1. Preregistration prevents inductive studies from being written-up as deductive studies. Inductive research is valuable, but the discipline is being misled if findings that are observed inductively are reported as if they were hypothesis tests of a theory.
  2. Preregistration allows researchers to signal that they did not fish for results, thereby showing that their research design was not driven by an ideological or funding-based desire to produce a result.
  3. Preregistration provides leverage for scholars who face result-oriented pressure from financial benefactors or policy makers. If the scholar has committed to a design beforehand, the lack of flexibility at the final stage can prevent others from influencing the results.

Overall, there is an array of reasons why the added transparency of study registration can serve the discipline, chiefly the opportunity to reduce publication bias. Whatever you think of this case, though, the best way to form an opinion about study registration is to try it by preregistering one of your own studies. Online study registries are available, so you are encouraged to try the process yourself and then weigh in on the preregistration debate with your own firsthand experience.

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Experiments, preregistration, and journals

By Joshua Tucker, Professor of Politics (NYU) and Co-Editor, Journal of Experimental Political Science

I want to make one simple point in this blog post: I think it would be a mistake for journals to come up with any set of standards that involves publically recognizing some publications as having “successfully” followed their pre-registration design while identifying others publications as not having done so. This could include a special section for articles that matched their pre-registration design, an A, B, C type rating system for how faithfully articles had stuck with the pre-registration design, or even an asterisk for articles that passed a pre-registration faithfulness bar.

Let me be equally clear that I have no problem with the use of registries for recording experimental designs before those experiments are implemented. Nor do I believe that these registries should not be referenced in published works featuring the results of those experiments. On the contrary, I think authors who have pre-registered designs ought to be free to reference what they registered, as well as to discuss in their publications how much the eventual implementation of the experiment might have differed from what was originally proposed in the registry and why.

My concern is much more narrow: I want to prevent some arbitrary third party from being given the authority to “grade” researchers on how well they stuck to their original design and then to be able to report that grade publically, as opposed to simply allowing readers to make up their own mind in this regard. My concerns are three-fold.

First, I have absolutely no idea how such a standard would actually be applied. Would it count as violating a pre-design registry if you changed the number of subjects enrolled in a study? What if the original subject pool was unwilling to participate for the planned monetary incentive, and the incentive had to be increased, or the subject pool had to be changed? What if the pre-registry called for using one statistical model to analyze the data, but the author eventually realized that another model was more appropriate? What if survey questions that was registered on a 1-4 scale was changed to a 1-5 scale? Which, if any of these, would invalidate the faithful application of the registry? Would all of them together? It seems to the only truly objective way to rate compliance is to have an all or nothing approach: either you do exactly what you say you do, or you didn’t follow the registry. Of course, then we are lumping “p-value fishing” in the same category as applying a better a statistical model or changing the wording of a survey question.

This bring me to my second point, which is a concern that giving people a grade for faithfully sticking to a registry could lead to people conducting sub-optimal research — and stifle creativity — out of fear that it will cost them their “A” registry-faithfulness grade. To take but one example, those of us who use survey experiments have long been taught to pre-test questions precisely because sometime some of the ideas we have when sitting at our desks don’t work in practice. So if someone registers a particular technique for inducing an emotional response and then runs a pre-test and figures out their technique is not working, do we really want the researcher to use the sub-optimal design in order to preserve their faithfulness to the registered design? Or consider a student who plans to run a field experiment in a foreign country that is based on the idea that certain last names convey ethnic identity. What happens if the student arrives in the field and learns that this assumption was incorrect? Should the student stick with the bad research design to preserve the ability to publish in the “registry faithful” section of JEPS? Moreover, research sometimes proceeds in fits and spurts. If as a graduate student I am able to secure funds to conduct experiments in country A but later as a faculty member can secure funds to replicate these experiments in countries B and C as well, should I fear including the results from country A in a comparative analysis because my original registry was for a single country study? Overall, I think we have to be careful about assuming that we can have everything about a study figured out at the time we submit a registry design, and that there will be nothing left for us to learn about how to improve the research — or that there won’t be new questions that can be explored with previously collected data — once we start implementing an experiment.

At this point a fair critique to raise is that the points in preceding paragraph could be taken as an indictment of registries generally. Here we venture more into simply a point of view, but I believe that there is a difference between asking people to document what their original plans were and giving them a chance in their own words — if they choose to do so — to explain how their research project evolved as opposed to having to deal with a public “grade” of whatever form that might take. In my mind, the former is part of producing transparent research, while the latter — however well intentioned — could prove paralyzing in terms of making adjustments during the research process or following new lines of interesting research.

This brings me to my final concern, which is that untenured faculty would end up feeling the most pressure in this regard. For tenured faculty, a publication without the requisite asterisks noting registry compliance might not end up being too big a concern — although I’m not even sure of that — but I could easily imagine junior faculty being especially worried that publications without registry asterisks could be held against them during tenure considerations.

The bottom line is that registries bring with them a host of benefits — as Jamie has nicely laid out above — but we should think carefully about how to best maximize those benefits in order to minimize new costs. Even if we could agree on how to rate a proposal in terms of faithfulness to registry design, I would suggest caution in trying to integrate ratings into the publication process.

The views expressed here are mine alone and do not represent either the Journal of Experimental Political Science or the APSA Organized Section on Experimental Research Methods.

Heading image: Interior of Rijksmuseum research library. Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed. CC-BY-SA-3.0-nl via Wikimedia Commons.

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