My hope is that a new graduate student in the fields I work on – language learning, social development, psycholinguistics, cognitive science more broadly – can pick up a journal and choose a seemingly strong study, implement it in my lab, and move forward with it as the basis for a new study. But unfortunately my experience is that this has not been the case much of the time, even in cases where it should be. I would like to change that, starting with my own work.
Here's one example of this kind of failure: As a first-year assistant professor, a grad student and I tried to replicate one of my grad school advisors' well-known studies. We failed repeatedly – despite the fact that we ended up thinking the finding was real (eventually published as Lewis & Frank, 2016, JEP:G). The issue was likely that the original finding was an overestimate of the effect, because the original sample was very small. But converging on the truth was very difficult and required multiple iterations.
This kind of thing happens to me quite a lot. I run a class in which first year PhDs in my department try to replicate the published literature, often articles from Psych Science and other top journals. I've blogged about this course (e.g., here) and published on outcomes from it as well (Hawkins, Smith et al., 2018, AMPPS). More than half of the time, these replication studies fail, roughly consistent with estimates from larger meta-science projects like RPP and the more recent (and higher-quality) ManyLabs 2 and Social Science Replication projects.
The reasons for this failure are not always clear, and we don't always do the extensive followup work necessary to "debug" the experiment. But over time I have tried to identify a number of reasons for failures and use them as guides to the way I run my lab and provide methodological training for students. I also have advocated for journals and funders to adopt these reforms. Most are about transparency, and some are about good design practices. These reforms have been a win-win for my lab. They improve the clarity, impact, and validity of our work – mostly while speeding things up! Here they are.
Use a reproducible workflow. Technical tools like git, RMarkdown, Jupyter, etc. facilitate students and other researchers reporting results whose provenance and relationship to the underlying data are known. These tools also speed up research dramatically, letting you share and reuse code effectively much more often and auto-generate tables, graphs, and other elements of reports. They also decrease copy/paste errors in reporting! And for me as a PI, I love being able to "audit" the work that folks in my lab do, and to quickly and easily pull in figures, data, or other excerpts from github when I need to add them to a talk.
Preregister. Everything in my lab is preregistered. All this means is that people in my lab need to write down what they are going to do (sample size, main analysis) before they do it. Here's a sample. If we have talked things through enough, writing the registration often takes 30 minutes; of course for more complex projects, more thought is needed (and it's a good thing to do that thinking ahead of time!). This process is not binding – we routinely violate our registration, and report our violation – and takes very little time. It just makes us transparently report what we knew before doing the study. As an added bonus, if you care about p < .05 results (I mostly don't), these are really only valid in the case of a preregistered hypothesis. There's what I think is a pretty good explanation of this perspective in our transparency guide from last year (Klein et al., 2018, Collabra).
Follow best practices in experimental design. That means thinking about reliability and validity, and using a psychometric perspective (e.g., including sampling multiple experimental items). It also means planning a sample size that is sufficient to get precise enough measures to make quantitative predictions. There is a huge body of knowledge about how to do good experiments from Rosenthal and Rosnow onward – but often we rely on lab lore and implicit learning.
In sum, my worries about the literature have led me to a set of practices that – I think – have enhanced the research we do and made it more reproducible and replicable, while not slowing us down or making our workflow more onerous.