Saturday, February 16, 2019

When is a replication not a replication? Part 2

A while back I described a scenario, and offered some ideas for how that scenario might occur:

Let's imagine a scenario. A researcher several years ago designs a study with five treatment conditions and is mainly interested in a planned contrast between condition 1 and the remaining four conditions. That finding appears statistically significant. A few years later, the same researcher runs a second experiment that appears to be based on the same protocols, but with a larger sample (both good ideas) and finds the same planned contrast is no longer significant. That is problematic for the researcher. So, what to do? Here is where we meet some forking paths. One choice is to report the findings as they appear and acknowledge that the original finding did not replicate. Admittedly finding journals to publish non-replications is still a bit of a challenge (too much so in my professional opinion), so that option may seem a bit unsavory. Perhaps another theory driven path is available. The researcher could note that other than the controller used in condition 1 and condition 2 (and the same for condition 3 and condition 4), the stimulus is identical. So, taking a different path, the researcher combines conditions 1 and 2 to form a new category and does the same with conditions 3 and 4. Condition 5 remains the same. Now, a significant ANOVA is obtainable and the researcher can plausibly argue that the findings show that this new category (conditions 1 and 2 combined) really is distinct from the neutral condition, thus supporting a theoretical model. The reported findings now look good for publication in a higher impact journal. The researcher did not find what she/he initially set out to find, but did find something. But did the researcher really replicate the original findings? If based on the prior published work, the answer appears to be no. The original planned contrast between condition 1 and the other conditions does not replicate. Does the researcher have a finding that tells us something possibly interesting or useful? Maybe. Maybe not. Does the revised analysis appear to be consistent with an established theoretical model? Apparently. Does the new finding tell us something about everyday life that the original would not have already told us had it successfully replicated? That's highly questionable. At bare minimum, in the strict sense of how we define a replication (i.e., a study that finds similar results to the original and/or to similar other studies) the study in question fails to do so. That happens with many psychological phenomena, especially ones that are quite novel and counter-intuitive.
 Here is a more concrete example of what I had described. Worth noting if for no other reason than the article in question is now officially "in print." I still think the concept of forking paths is one that seems applicable here, as one attempts to digest what is reported in the article versus what was apparently intended originally, and what is argued for as an overarching narrative in the article in question. That the evidence, as it exists, contradicts the narrative that might have been desirable is in itself neither good nor bad. To put it more casually, it is what it is. If nothing else, for those willing to go into the weeds a bit, the new findings, compared side by side with those in the original article, are quite informative. Let's learn what we can and move on.

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