Unilaterally Raising the Scientific Standard

By Neuroskeptic | February 3, 2013 10:51 am

For years, I and others have been arguing that the current system of publishing science is broken. Publishing and peer-reviewing work only after the study’s been conducted and the data analysed allows bad practices – such as selective publication of desirable findings, and running multiple statistical tests to find positive results – to run rampant.

So I was extremely interested when I received an email from Jona Sassenhagen, of the University of Marburg, with subject line: Unilaterally raising the standard.

Sassenhagen explained that he’s chose to pre-register a neuroscience study on a public database, the German Clinical Trials Register (DRKS).

His project, Alignment of Late Positive ERP Components to Linguistic Deviations (“P600”), is designed to use EEG to test whether the brain generates a distinct electrical response – the P600 – in response to seeing grammatical errors. The background here is that the P600 certainly exists, but people disagree on whether it’s specific to language; Sassenhagen hopes to find out.

By publicly announcing the methods he’ll use before collecting any data, Sassenhagen has, in my view, taken a brave and important step towards a better kind of science.


Already, most journals require trials of medical treatments to be publicly pre-registered, and the DRKS is one such registry. This study, however, is ‘pure’ neuroscience with nothing clinical about it, so it doesn’t need to be registered – Sassenhagen just did it voluntarily.

Further, I should point out that he offered to pre-register his data analysis pipeline too by sending it to me. Unfortunately, I didn’t reply to the email in time… but that was purely my fault.

I very much hope and expect that others will follow in his footsteps. Unilaterally adopting preregistration is one of the ways that I’ve argued reform could get started. As I said:

This would, at least at first, place these adopters at an objective disadvantage. However, by voluntarily accepting such a disadvantage, it might be hoped that such actors would gain acclaim as more trustworthy than non-adopters.

Pre-registration puts you at a disadvantage – insofar as it limits your ability to use bad practice to fish for positive results. It means you can’t cheat, essentially, which is a handicap if everyone else can.

I don’t know if this is the first time anyone’s opted in to registering a pure neuroscience study, but it’s certainly the first case I know of it being done for an entirely new experiment.

There have, however, recently been many pre-registered attempts to replicate previously published results e.g. the Reproducibility of Psychological Science; the ‘Precognition’ Replications; and an upcoming special issue of Frontiers in Cognition.

Replications are good, registered ones doubly so – but they’re not enough to fix bad practice on their own. To do that we need to work on the source, original scientific research.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: EEG, FixingScience, science
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Neuroskeptic

No brain. No gain.

About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.

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