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Bite-Size Science, False Positives, and Citation Amnesia

There are good things about short psychology papers. They’re easier to edit and review, not to mention less time-consuming to write. A short paper on a CV looks just as impressive as a long one. Also, a short paper is more likely to be noticed by reporters with little to no attention span—especially if the result is interestingly contrarian—and thus bring the researcher widespread acclaim and riches. Or at least a mention in some blog.

The downside is that they tend to be wrong, at least according to a short paper titled “Bite-Size Science and Its Undesired Side Effects.” That’s because, the authors write, short papers often include experiments with smaller sample sizes, which have a higher probability of false positives. They’re more likely to suffer from “citation amnesia,” that is, the omission of previous studies that might provide context. These get left out because authors are trying to keep it tight and snappy but also because “a finding is bound to sound more newsworthy when the discussion of previous relevant work is less detailed.”

The authors lay some of the blame on journal editors. From the paper:

One of the authors has received correspondence from Psychological Science saying that they hope to find manuscripts that “report new discoveries that will make our readership sit up and take notice.” These, a priori, are more likely to be false positives (Ioannidis, 2005). Flukes tend to meet this criterion by their nature (they are surprising and different from what other people tend to find). In part this is unavoidable, but what is relevant here is that bite-size articles make this problem worse. We are all aware of the need for results to be replicated. Long articles with multiple experiments show whether an effect can be replicated and supported by converging evidence.

What to do about it? The authors point out that in genetic-association studies “independent replication in the same study is now a requirement for publication in many high-quality journals.”

In the interest of citing previous relevant work, I should note that this Chris Shea article from a little while back covers some of the same territory. Also, there’s this recent piece on fast-food scholarship.

(The paper, published in the current issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science, is not online, but a press releases can be found here. The authors are Marco Bertamini of the University of Liverpool and Marcus Munafò of the University of Bristol.)

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