Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Respect your elders: Fads, fashions, and folderol in psychology - Dunnette (1966)

Some reflections on novelty in psychological science

In the discussion on open data I commented on recently results were reported on data sharing:
Because the authors were writing in APA journals and PLoS One, respectively, they had agreed at the time of submitting that they would share their data according to the journals' policies. But only 26 % and 10 %, respectively, did. (I got the references from a paper by Peter Götzsche, there may be others of which I am unaware.
Yes, there are other studies, interestingly, in the historical record: plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

To stress the importance of efforts to change these statistics, an excerpt from Dunnette (1966) who reports a 1962 study found 13.5% authors complied to data requests. Reasons for being unable to comply with a request sound familiar, this is not an issue of "modern" science it seems. (I can recommend the entire article)

We might better label this game "Dear God,  Please Don't Tell Anyone." As the name implies, it incorporates all the things we do to accomplish the aim of looking better in public than we really are. The most common variant is, of course, the tendency to bury negative results.  
I only recently became aware of the massive size of this great graveyard for dead studies when a colleague ex- pressed gratification that only a third of his studies "turned out"—as he put it. 
Recently, a second variant of this secrecy game was discovered, quite inadvertently, by Wolins (1962) when he wrote to 37 authors to ask. for the raw data on which they had based recent journal articles. 
Wolins found that of 32 who replied, 21 reported their data to be either misplaced, lost, or inadvertently destroyed. Finally, after some negotiation, Wolins was able to complete seven re-analyses on the data supplied from 5 authors. 
Of the seven, he found gross errors in three—errors so great as to clearly change the outcome of the results already reported. Thus, if we are to accept these results from Wolins' sampling, we might expect that as many as one-third of the studies in our journals contain gross miscalculations."

30% gross miscalculations might have been a high estimate, but as a 50 year prospective prediction it's not bad: Bakker & Wicherts (2011) found "number of articles with gross errors" across 3 high and 3 low impact journals ranging from 9% to 27.6% 

In the light of these (and other) historical facts & figures, maybe its time for a historical study, lots of recommendations in those publications. 

Again Dunnette (1966):

When viewed against the backdrop of publication pressures prevailing in academia, the lure of large-scale support from Federal agencies, and the presumed necessity to become "visible" among one's colleagues, the insecurities of undertaking research on important questions in possibly untapped and unfamiliar areas become even more apparent. 
1. Give up constraining commitments to theories, methods, and apparatus!
2. Adopt methods of multiple working hypotheses!
3. Put more eclecticism into graduate education!
4. Press for new values and less pre-tense in the academic environments of our universities!
5. Get to the editors of our psychological journals! 
How do I envision the eventual outcome if all these recommendations were to come to pass? What would the psychologizing of the future look like and what would psychologists be up to? Chief among the outcomes, I expect, would be a marked lessening of tensions and disputes among the Great Men of our field.
I would hope that we might once again witness the emergence of an honest community of scholars all engaged in the zestful enterprise of trying to describe, understand, predict, and control human behavior.


Bakker, M., & Wicherts, J. M. (2011). The (mis)reporting of statistical results in psychology journals. Behavior research methods43(3), 666–78. doi:10.3758/s13428-011-0089-5
Dunnette, M. D. (1966). Fads, fashions, and folderol in psychology. The American psychologist21(4), 343–52. Retrieved from
Wolins, L. (1962). Responsibility for raw data. The American Psychologist, 17, 657-658. doi: 10.1037/h0038819