Heads turn whenever accusations are made about academic impropriety, but it is especially provocative when one of the researchers involved in a study makes accusations about his/her own research. A forthcoming article in the Journal of Management Inquiry written by an anonymous senior scholar in organizational behavior does exactly this. The author, who remains anonymous to protect the identity of his/her coauthors, claims that research in organizational behavior routinely violates norms of scientific hypothesis testing.
I want to be clear: I never fudged data, but it did seem like I was fudging the framing of the work, by playing a little fast and loose with the rules of the game—as I thought I understood how the game should be played according to the rules of the scientific method. So, I must admit, it was not unusual for me to discover unforeseen results in the analysis phase, and I often would then create post hoc hypotheses in my mind to describe these unanticipated results. And yes, I would then write up the paper as if these hypotheses were truly a priori. In one way of thinking, the theory espoused (about the proper way of doing research) became the theory-in-practice (about how organizational research actually gets done).
I’m certain that some people reading this will say, “Big deal, people reformulate hypotheses all the time as they figure out what their analysis is telling them.” The author recognizes this is the case and, I believe, relates his/her experience as a warning of how the field’s standards for writing are evolving in detrimental ways. For example, the author says, “there is a commonly understood structure or “script” for an article, and authors ask for trouble when they violate this structure. If you violate the script, you give the impression that you are inexperienced. Sometimes, even the editor requires an author to create false framing.” Sadly, this is true.
All too often reviewers feel that it is their role to tell the authors of a paper how to structure hypotheses, rewrite hypotheses, and explain analysis results. Some reviewers, especially inexperienced ones, may do this because they feel that they are doing the author(s) a favor – they’re helping make the paper cleaner and understandable. But the unintended consequence of this highly structured way of writing and presenting results is that it forces authors into a form of mild academic dishonesty in which they do not allow the exploratory part of the analytical process to be transparent.
Some journals have a much stronger ethos about hypothesis testing than others. AJS is looser and allows authors more freedom in this regard. But some social psych journals (like JPSP) have become extremely rigid in wanting to see hypotheses stated a priori and then tested systematically. I would love to see more journals encourage variability in reporting of results and allow for the possibility that many of our results were, in fact, unexpected. I would love it if more editors chastised reviewers who want to force authors into a highly formulaic style of hypothesizing and writing results. It simply doesn’t reflect how most of us do research.
Perhaps the anonymous author’s tale will ignite a much needed discussion about how we write about social scientific analysis.