Doing science backwards

Article by Stuart Ritchie: “…Usually, the process of publishing such a study would look like this: you run the study; you write it up as a paper; you submit it to a journal; the journal gets some other scientists to peer-review it; it gets published – or if it doesn’t, you either discard it, or send it off to a different journal and the whole process starts again.

That’s standard operating procedure. But it shouldn’t be. Think about the job of the peer-reviewer: when they start their work, they’re handed a full-fledged paper, reporting on a study and a statistical analysis that happened at some point in the past. It’s all now done and, if not fully dusted, then in a pretty final-looking form.

What can the reviewer do? They can check the analysis makes sense, sure; they can recommend new analyses are done; they can even, in extreme cases, make the original authors go off and collect some entirely new data in a further study – maybe the data the authors originally presented just aren’t convincing or don’t represent a proper test of the hypothesis.

Ronald Fisher described the study-first, review-later process in 1938:

To consult the statistician [or, in our case, peer-reviewer] after an experiment is finished is often merely to ask him to conduct a post mortem examination. He can perhaps say what the experiment died of.

Clearly this isn’t the optimal, most efficient way to do science. Why don’t we review the statistics and design of a study right at the beginning of the process, rather than at the end?

This is where Registered Reports come in. They’re a new (well, new-ish) way of publishing papers where, before you go to the lab, or wherever you’re collecting data, you write down your plan for your study and send it off for peer-review. The reviewers can then give you genuinely constructive criticism – you can literally construct your experiment differently depending on their suggestions. You build consensus—between you, the reviewers, and the journal editor—on the method of the study. And then, once everyone agrees on what a good study of this question would look like, you go off and do it. The key part is that, at this point, the journal agrees to publish your study, regardless of what the results might eventually look like…(More)”.