APA Ethics vs. the File Drawer

These days, authors and editors often complain about a lack of clear, top-down guidance on the ethics of the file-drawer. For many years in psychology, it was considered OK to refrain from reporting studies in a line of research with nonsignificant key results. This may sound bad to your third-grader, to Aunt Millie, or to Representative Sanchez. But almost everyone did it.

The rationales have looked a lot like Bandura’s inventory of moral disengagement strategies (pdf): “this was just a pilot study” (euphemistic labeling), “there must be something wrong with the methods, unlike these studies that worked” (distortion of consequences — unless you can point to evidence the methods failed, independently of the results),  “at least it’s not fabrication” (advantageous comparison), and of course, “we are doing everyone a favor, nobody wants to read boring nonsignificant results” (moral justification).

Bandura would probably classify “journals won’t accept anything with a nonsignificant result” as displacement of responsibility, too. But I see journals as just the right and responsible place to set standards for authors to follow. So, as Editor-in-Chief, I’ve let it be known that JESP is open to nonsignificant study results, either as part of sampling variation in a larger pattern of evidence, or telling a convincing null story thanks to solid methods.

That’s the positive task, but the negative task is harder. How do we judge how much a body of past research, or a manuscript submitted today, suffers from publication bias? What is the effect of publication bias on conclusions to be drawn from the literature? These are pragmatic questions. There’s also ethics: whether, going forward, we should treat selective publication based only on results as wrong.

Uli Schimmack likens selective publication and analysis to doping. But if so, we’re in the 50-year period in the middle of the 20th century when, slowly and piecemeal, various athletic authorities were taking first steps to regulate performance-enhancing drugs. A British soccer player buzzed on benzedrine in 1962 was not acting unethically by the regulations of his professional body. Imagine referees being left to decide at each match whether a player’s performance is “too good to be true” without clear regulations from the professional body. This is the position of the journal editor today.

Or is it? I haven’t seen much awareness that the American Psychological Association’s publication manuals, 5th (2003) and 6th (2010) edition, quietly put forward an ethical standard relevant to selective publication. Here’s the 6th edition, p. 12. The 5th edition’s language is very similar.

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Note that this is an interpretation of a section in the Ethics Code that does not directly mention omission of results. You could search the Ethics Code without finding any mention of selective publication, which is probably why this section is little known. Here’s 5.01a below.

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Also getting in the way of a clear message is the Publication Manual’s terse language. “Observations” could, I suppose, be narrowly interpreted to mean dropping participants ad hoc from a single study just to improve the outcome. If you interpret “observations” more broadly (and reasonably) to mean “studies,” there is still the question of what studies a given report should contain, in a lab where multiple lines of research are going on in parallel. There is room to hide failed studies, perhaps, in the gap between lines.

But I don’t think we should be trying to reverse-engineer a policy out of such a short a description. See it for what it is: a statement of the spirit of the law, rather than the letter. Even if you don’t think you’re being “deceptive or fraudulent,” just trying to clarify the message our of kindness to your reader, the Publication Manual warns against the impulse “to present a more convincing story.” There can be good reasons for modifying and omitting evidence in order to present the truth faithfully. But these need to be considered independent of the study’s failure or success in supporting the hypothesis.

One last numbered paragraph. This is the relevant section of the Ethical Principles (not the Publication Manual) that authors have to sign off on when they submit a manuscript to an APA journal.

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What would be the implications if the APA’s submission form instead used the exact language and interpretation of 5.01a from its own most recent Publication Manual? Explosive, I think. Using the APA’s own official language, it would lay down an ethical standard for research reporting far beyond any of the within-study reporting measures I know about in any journal of psychology. It would go beyond p-curving, R-indexing and “robustness” talk after the fact, and say out loud that file-drawering studies only because they’ve failed to support a hypothesis is unethical. Working out reasonable ways to define that standard would then be an urgent next step for the APA and all journals who subscribe to its publication ethics.

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