Recently I participated in an event organised by PhD students in Experimental Psychology at UCL called “Is Science broken?”. It involved a lively panel discussion in which the panel members answered many questions from the audience about how we feel science can be improved. The opening of the event was a talk by Chris Chambers of Cardiff University about Registered Reports (RR), a new publishing format in which researchers preregister their introduction and methods sections before any data collection takes place. Peer review takes place in two stages: first, reviewers evaluate the appropriateness of the question and the proposed experimental design and analysis procedures, and then, after data collection and analysis have been completed and the results are known, peer review continues to finalise the study for publication. This approach is aimed to make scientific publishing independent from the pressure to get perfect results or changing one’s apparent hypothesis depending on the outcome of the experiments.
Chris’ talk was in large part a question and answer session for specific concerns with the RR approach that had been raised at other talks or in writing. Most of these questions he (and his coauthors) had already answered in a similar way in a published FAQ paper. However, it was nice to see him talk so passionately about this topic. Also speaking for myself at least I can say that seeing a person arguing their case is usually far more compelling than reading an article on it – even though the latter will in the end probably have a wider reach.
Here I want to raise some additional questions about the answers Chris (and others) have given to some of these specific concerns. The purpose in doing so is not to “bring about death by a thousand cuts” to the RR concept as Aidan Horner calls it. I completely agree with Aidan that many concerns people have with RR (and lighter forms of preregistration) are probably logistical. It may well be that some people just really want to oppose this idea and are looking for any little reason to use as an excuse. However, I think both sides of the debate about this issue have suffered from a focus on potentials rather than fact. We simply won’t know how much good or bad preregistration will do for science unless we try it. This seems to be a concept that everyone at the discussion was very much in agreement on and we all discussed ways in which we could actually assess the evidence for whether RRs improved science over the next few decades.
Therefore I want it to be clear that the points I raise are not an ideological opposition to preregistration. Rather they are some points where I found the answers Chris describe to be not entirely satisfying. I very much believe that preregistration must be tried but I want to provoke some thought about possible problems with it. The sooner we are aware of these issues, the sooner they can be fixed.
Wouldn’t reviewers rely even more on the authors’ reputation?
In the Stage 1 of an RR, when only the scientific question and experimental design are reviewed, reviewers have little to go on to evaluate the protocol. Provided that the logic of the question and the quality of the design are evident, they would hopefully be able to make some informed decisions about it. However, I think it is a bit naive to assume that the reputation of the authors isn’t going to influence the reviewers’ judgements. I have heard of many grant reviews asking questions as to whether the authors would be capable of pulling off some proposed research. There is an extensive research literature on how the evaluation of identical exam papers or job applications or whatnot can be influenced by factors like the subject’s gender or name. I don’t think simply saying “Author reputation is not among” the review criteria is enough of a safeguard.
I also don’t think that having a double-blind review system is necessarily a good way to protect against this. There have been wider discussions about the short-comings of double-blind reviews and this situation is no different. In many situations you could easily guess the authors’ identity by the experimental protocol alone. And double blind review suffers even more from one of the main problems with anonymous reviewers (which I generally support): when the reviewers guess the authors’ identities incorrectly that could have even worse consequences because their decision will be based on an incorrect assessment of the authors.
Can’t people preregister experiments they have already completed?
The general answer here is that this would constitute fraud. The RR format would also require time stamped data files and lab logs to guarantee that data were produced only after the protocol has been registered. Both of these points are undeniably true. However, while there may be such a thing as an absolute ethical ideal, in the end a lot of our ethics are probably governed by majority consensus. The fact that many questionable research practices are apparently so widespread is presumably just that: while most people deep down understand that these things are “not ideal”, they may nonetheless engage in them because they feel that “everybody else does it.”
For instance, I often hear that people submit grant proposals for experiments they have already completed although I have personally never seen this with any grant proposals. I have also heard that it is more common in the US perhaps but at least based on all the anecdotes it may generally be widespread. Surely this is also fraudulent but nevertheless people apparently do it?
Regarding time stamped data, I also don’t know if this is necessarily a sufficiently strong safeguard. For the most part, time stamps are pretty easy to “adjust”. Crucially, I don’t think many reviewers or post-publication commenters will go through the trouble of checking them. Faking time stamps is certainly deep into fraud territory but people’s ethical views are probably not all black and white. I could easily see some people bending the rules just that little, especially if preregistered studies become a new gold standard in the scientific community.
Now perhaps this is a bit too pessimistic a view of our colleagues. I agree that we probably should not exaggerate this concern. But given the concerns people have with questionable research practices now I am not entirely sure we can really just dismiss this possibility by saying that this would be fraud.
Finally, another answer to this concern is that preregistering your experiment after the fact would backfire because the authors could then not implement any changes suggested by reviewers in Stage 1. However, this only applies to changes in the experimental design, the stimuli or apparatus etc. The most confusing corners in the “garden of forking paths” are usually the analysis procedure, not the design. There are only so many ways to run a simple experiment and most minor changes suggested by a reviewer could easily be dismissed by authors. However, changes to the analysis approach could quite easily be implemented after the results are known.
Reviewers could steal my preregistered protocol and scoop me
I agree that this concern is not overly realistic. In fact, I don’t even believe the fear of being scooped is overly realistic. I’m sure it happens (and there are some historical examples) but it is far rarer than most people believe. Certainly it is rather unlikely for a reviewer to do this. For one thing, time is usually simply not on their side. There is a lot that could be written about the fear of getting scooped and I might do that at some future point. But this is outside the scope of this post.
Whatever its actual prevalence, the paranoia (or boogieman) of scooping is clearly widespread. Until we find a way to allay this fear I am not sure that it will be enough to tell people that the Manuscript Received date of a preregistered protocol would clearly show who had the idea sooner. First of all, the Received date doesn’t really tell you when somebody had an idea. The “scooper” could always argue that they had the idea before that date but only ended up submitting the study afterwards (and I am sure that actually happens fairly often without scooping).
More importantly though, one of the main reasons people are afraid of being scooped is the pressure to publish in high impact journals. Having a high impact publication has greater currency than the Received date of a RR in what is most likely a lower impact journal. I doubt many people would actually check the date unless you specifically point it out to them. We already now have a problem with people not reading the publications of job and grant applicants but relying on metrics like impact factors and h-indeces. I don’t easily see them looking through that information.
As a junior researcher I must publish in high impact journals
I think this is an interesting issue. I would love nothing more than if we could stop caring about who published what where. At the same time I think that there is a role for high impact journals like Nature, Science or Neuron (seriously folks, PNAS doesn’t belong in that list – even if you didn’t boycott it like me…). I would like the judgement of scientific quality and merit to be completely divorced from issues of sensationalism, novelty, and news that quite likely isn’t the whole story. I don’t know how to encourage that change though. Perhaps RRs can help with that but I am not sure they’re enough. Either way, it may be a foolish and irrational fear but I know that as a junior scientist I (and my postdocs and students) currently do seek to publish at least some (but not exclusively) “high impact” research to be successful. But I digress.
Chris et al. write that sooner or later high impact outlets will probably come on board with offering RRs. I don’t honestly see that happening, at least not without a much more wide-ranging change in culture. I think RRs are a great format for specialised journals to have. However, the top impact journals primarily exist for publishing exciting results (whatever that means). I don’t think they will be keen to open the floodgates for lots of submissions that aim to test exciting ideas but fail to deliver the results to match them. What I could see perhaps is a system in which a journal like Nature would review a protocol and accept to publish it in its flagship journal if the results are positive but in its lower-impact outlet (e.g. Nature Communications) if the results are negative. The problem with this idea is that it somehow goes against the egalitarian philosophy of the current RR proposals. The publication again would be dependent on the outcome of the experiments.
Registered Reports are incompatible with short student projects
After all the previous fairly negative points I think this one is actually about a positive aspect of science. For me this is actually one of the greatest concerns. In my mind this is a very valid worry and Chris and co acknowledge this also in their article. I think RRs would be a viable solution for experiments by a PhD student but for master students, who are typically around for a few months only, it is simply not very realistic to first submit a protocol and revising it over weeks and months of reviews before even collecting the first data.
A possible solution suggested for this problem is that you could design the experiments and have them approved by peer reviewers before the students commence. I think this is a terrible idea. For me perhaps the best part of supervising student projects in my lab is when we discuss the experimental design. The best students typically come with their own ideas and make critical suggestions and improvements to the procedure. Not only is this phase very enjoyable but I think designing good experiments is also one of the most critical skills for junior scientists to learn. By having the designs finalised before the students even step through the door of the lab would undermine that.
Perhaps for those cases it would make more sense to just use light preregistration, that is, uploading your protocol to a timestamped archive but without external review. But if in the future RR do become the new gold standard, I would worry that this denigrates the excellent research projects of many students.
As I said, these points are not meant to shoot down the concept of Registered Reports. Some of the points may not even be such enormous concerns at all. However, I hope that my questions provoke thought and that we can discuss ways to improve the concept further and find safeguards against these possible problems.
Sorry this post was very long as usual but there seems to be a lot to say. My next post though will be short, I promise! 😉