Fishing, Commitment, and Communication: A Proposal for Comprehensive Nonbinding Research Registration

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Social scientists generally enjoy substantial latitude in selecting measures and models for hypothesis testing. Coupled with publication and related biases, this latitude raises the concern that researchers may intentionally or unintentionally select models that yield positive findings, leading to an unreliable body of published research. To combat this “fishing” problem in medical studies, leading journals now require preregistration of designs that emphasize the prior identification of dependent and independent variables. However, we demonstrate here that even with this level of advanced specification, the scope for fishing is considerable when there is latitude over selection of covariates, subgroups, and other elements of an analysis plan. These concerns could be addressed through the use of a form of comprehensive registration. We experiment with such an approach in the context of an ongoing field experiment for which we drafted a complete “mock report” of findings using fake data on treatment assignment. We describe the advantages and disadvantages of this form of registration and propose that a comprehensive but nonbinding approach be adopted as a first step to combat fishing by social scientists. Likely effects of comprehensive but nonbinding registration are discussed, the principal advantage being communication rather than commitment, in particular that it generates a clear distinction between exploratory analyses and genuine tests.

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Type of resources: Primary Source, Reading, Paper

Education level(s): College / Upper Division (Undergraduates)

Primary user(s): Student

Subject area(s): Social Science

Language(s): English