Publishing replications and null findings. A hot topic for a stretching and challenging debate.

Publication bias and the distortion of psychology literature

Professor Keith Laws (University of Hertfordshire), amongst other scientists and science writers, argues that continuing the trend of failing to publish replications and null findings in journals means that the truth of psychology literature is inevitably distorted. In his paper, entitled “Negativland – a home for all findings in Psychology”, he discusses various issues concerning publication bias in Psychology. Laws also stresses the need for psychologists to “get their house-in-order”, making a convincing argument that the current practice of many journals where novelty is favoured over reliability, needs to be stopped.

Hot topic in the real world

This is a highly topical and important issue being discussed in the “real world” of psychology and as such I think it is important for A Level students to be aware of this issue and why it is a hot topic – even if it isn’t printed specifically in any specification.

Unit 4: Psychological Research and Scientific Method (AQA A)

Unit 4 of the AQA A specification for A Level Psychology requires students to study the features of science (including replicability) and the validation of new knowledge, both of which make the issues raised by Laws in his article highly relevant to A Level Psychology.

In the classroom

Here are a few ways the issues raised here might be made relevant to the A Level Psychology classroom to provide a healthy bit of stretch and challenge.

To publish or not to publish…

Give students a brief summary of 4 pieces of fictional research:

  1. A quirky novel finding
  2. A replication of a piece of research students have come across already where the previous findings were supported
  3. A replication of a piece of research where the previous findings were not supported
  4. A study where the null hypothesis was accepted.

Either give all students all 4 examples or allocate one per small group. Ask students whether the research should be considered for publication by a leading journal and ask them to justify their opinions. This could act as a stimulus for discussing a range of issues with publication including those raised by the paper discussed in this post. This could also lead into a discussion of how new knowledge is validated as students could be asked how they might ensure that the research they want to publish is of high quality, leading neatly into a focus on the peer review process.

A stretching and challenging debate

Ask students to read the article discussed earlier in this post – or a summarised version – and invite students to a seminar style discussion about the ideas discussed. Alternatively assign “sides” and debate the publication of negative findings.

A student edited journal

This article appears in a brand new journal called BMC Psychology which strives to publish work that adds to the scientific knowledge base without playing to the crowd in terms of interest levels.

After a discussion relating to issues of publication and bias you could ask students to imagine they are the editor of a new journal. Ask students to write a short piece about their journals approach to publication, outlining their publication criteria.


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