False-positive psychology five years later

Joe Simmons, Leif Nelson, and Uri Simonsohn have written a 5-years-later[1] retrospective on their “false-positive psychology” paper. It is for an upcoming issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science dedicated to the most-cited articles from APS publications. A preprint is now available.

It’s a short and snappy read with some surprises and gems. For example, footnote 2 notes that the Journal of Consumer Research declined to adopt their disclosure recommendations because they might “dull … some of the joy scholars may find in their craft.” No, really.

For the youngsters out there, they do a good job of capturing in a sentence a common view of what we now call p-hacking: “Everyone knew it was wrong, but they thought it was wrong the way it’s wrong to jaywalk. We decided to write ‘False-Positive Psychology’ when simulations revealed it was wrong the way it’s wrong to rob a bank.”[2]

The retrospective also contains a review of how the paper has been cited in 3 top psychology journals. About half of the citations are from researchers following the original paper’s recommendations, but typically only a subset of them. The most common citation practice is to justify having barely more than 20 subjects per cell, which they now describe as a “comically low threshold” and take a more nuanced view on.

But to me, the most noteworthy passage was this one because it speaks to institutional pushback on the most straightforward of their recommendations:

Our paper has had some impact. Many psychologists have read it, and it is required reading in at least a few methods courses. And a few journals – most notably, Psychological Science and Social Psychological and Personality Science – have implemented disclosure requirements of the sort that we proposed (Eich, 2014; Vazire, 2015). At the same time, it is worth pointing out that none of the top American Psychological Association journals have implemented disclosure requirements, and that some powerful psychologists (and journal interests) remain hostile to costless, common sense proposals to improve the integrity of our field.

Certainly there are some small refinements you could make to some of the original paper’s disclosure recommendations. For example, Psychological Science requires you to disclose all variables “that were analyzed for this article’s target research question,” not all variables period. Which is probably an okay accommodation for big multivariate studies with lots of measures.[3]

But it is odd to be broadly opposed to disclosing information in scientific publications that other scientists would consider relevant to evaluating the conclusions. And yet I have heard these kinds of objections raised many times. What is lost by saying that researchers have to report all the experimental conditions they ran, or whether data points were excluded and why? Yet here we are in 2017 and you can still get around doing that.


1. Well, five-ish. The paper came out in late 2011.

2. Though I did not have the sense at the time that everyone knew about everything. Rather, knowledge varied: a given person might think that fiddling with covariates was like jaywalking (technically wrong but mostly harmless), that undisclosed dropping of experimental conditions was a serious violation, but be completely oblivious to the perils of optional stopping. And a different person might have had a different constellation of views on the same 3 issues.

3. A counterpoint is that if you make your materials open, then without clogging up the article proper, you allow interested readers to go and see for themselves.

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