Registered Reports (RRs) are a new publishing format pioneered by the journal Cortex (Chambers 2013). This publication format emphasises the process of rigorous research, rather than the results, in an attempt to avoid questionable research practices such as p-hacking and HARK-ing, which ultimately reduce the reproducibility of research and contribute to publication bias in cognitive science (Chambers et al. 2014). A recent JEPS post by Dablander (2016) and JEPS’ own editorial for adopting RRs (King et al. 2016) have given a detailed explanation of the RR process. However, you may have thought that publishing a RR is reserved for only senior scientists, and is not a viable option for a postgraduate student. In fact, 5 out of 6 of the first RRs published by Cortex have had post-graduate students as authors, and publishing by RR offers postgraduates and early career researchers many unique benefits.
In the following article you will hear about the experience of Dr. Hannah Hobson, who published a RR in the journal Cortex as a part of her PhD project. I spoke to Hannah about the planning that was involved, the useful reviewer comments she received, and asked her what tips she has for postgraduates interested in publishing a RR. Furthermore, there are some comments from Professor Chris Chambers who is a section editor for Cortex on how postgraduates can benefit from using this publishing format.
Interview with Dr. Hannah Hobson
Hannah completed her PhD project on children’s behavioural imitation skills, and potential neurophysiological measures of the brain systems underlying imitation. Her PhD was based at the University of Oxford, under the supervision of Professor Dorothy Bishop. During her studies, Hannah became interested in mu suppression, an EEG measure purported to reflect the activity of the human mirror neuron system. However, she was concerned that much of research on mu suppression suffered from methodological problems, despite this measure being widely used in social cognitive neuroscience. Hannah and Dorothy thought it would be appropriate to publish a RR to focus on some of these issues. This study was published in the journal Cortex, and investigated whether mu suppression is a good measure of the human mirror neuron system (Hobson and Bishop 2016). I spoke to Hannah about her project and what her experience of publishing a RR was like during her PhD.
As you can hear from Hannah’s experience, publishing a RR was beneficial in ways that would not be possible with standard publishing formats. However, they are not suitable for every study. Drawing from Hannah’s experience and Chris Chambers’ role in promoting RRs, the main strengths and concerns for postgraduate students publishing a RR are summarised below.
It has been highlighted that the majority of psychological studies suffer from low power. As well as limiting the chances of finding an effect, low-powered studies are more likely to lack reproducibility as they overemphasise the effect size (Button et al. 2013). As a part of the stage one submission, a formal power analysis needs to be performed to identify the number of participants required for a high powered study (>90%). Therefore, PhD studies published as RRs will have greater power and reproducibility in comparison to the average unregistered study (Chambers et al. 2014).
More certainty over publications
The majority of published PhD studies begin to emerge during the final year or during your first post-doctoral position. As the academic job markets becomes ever more competitive, publications are essential. As Professor Chambers notes, RRs “enable PhD students to list provisionally accepted papers on their CVs by the time they submit their PhDs”. Employers will see greater certainty in a RR with stage one approval than the ‘in preparation’ listed next to innumerable papers following the standard publishing format.
Lower rejection rate at stage two submission
Although reaching stage one approval is more difficult due to the strict methodological rigour required, there is greater certainty in the eventual outcome of the paper once you have in-principal acceptance. In Cortex, approximately 90% of unregistered reports are rejected upon submission, but only 10% of RRs which reach stage one review have been rejected, with none being rejected so far with in-principal acceptance.
“This means you are far more likely to get your paper accepted at the first journal you submit to, reducing the tedious and time-wasting exercise of submitting down a chain of journals after your work is finished and you may already be competing on the job market”. – Professor Chris Chambers
As Dorothy Bishop explains in her blog, once you have in-principle acceptance you are in control of the timing of the publication (Bishop 2016). This means that you will have a publication in print during your PhD, as opposed to starting to submit papers towards the end which may only be ‘in preparation’ by the time of your viva voce.
Constructive reviewer comments
As the rationale and methodology is peer-reviewed before the data-collection process, reviewers are able to make suggestions to improve the design of your study. In Hannah’s experience, a reviewer pointed out an issue with her control stimuli. If she had conducted the study following the standard format, reviewers would only be able to point this out retrospectively when there is no option to change it. This experience will also be invaluable during your viva voce. As you defend your work in front of the examiners, you know your study has already gone through several rounds of review, so you can be confident in how robust it is.
Things to consider
Recruiting and testing participants is a lengthy process, and you often encounter a series of setbacks. If you are already in the middle of your PhD, then you may not have time to go through stage one submission before collecting your data. In Hannah’s case, publishing a RR was identified early in the project which provided a sufficient amount of time to complete it during her PhD. If you are interested in RRs, it is advisable to start the submission process as early into your PhD as possible. You may even want to start the discussion during the interview process.
During stage one submission, you need to provide evidence that you already have ethical approval. If the reviewers want you to make changes to the methodology, this may necessitate amending your ethics application. In busy periods, this process of going back and forth between the reviewers and your ethics committee can become time-consuming. As time constraints is the pertinent concern for postgraduates publishing a RR, this is an additional hurdle that must be negotiated. Whilst there is no easy solution to this problem, aiming to publish a RR must be identified early in your project to ensure you will have enough time, and have a back-up plan prepared for if things do not work out.
RRs are not available in every journal
Although there has been a surge in journals offering RRs, they are not available in every one. Your research might be highly specialised and the key journal in your area may not offer the option of a RR. If your research does not fit into the scope of a journal that offers RRs, you may not have the option to publish your study as a RR. Whist there is no simple solution for this, there is a regular list of journals offering RRs on the Open Science Framework (OSF).
Although there are a number of prominent researchers behind the initiative (Guardian Open Letter 2013), there is not universal agreement with some researchers voicing concerns (Scott 2013, although see Chambers et al. 2014 for a rebuttal to many common concerns). There have been some vocal critics of RRs, and one of these critics might end up being your supervisor. If you want to conduct a RR as a part of your PhD and your supervisor is against it, there may be some conflict. Again, it is best to identify early on in your PhD if you want to publish a RR, and make sure both you and your supervisor are on the same page.
Publishing a RR as a postgraduate researcher is a feasible option that provides several benefits, both to the individual student and to wider scientific progress. Research published as a RR is more likely to produce reproducible findings, due to the necessary high level of power, reviewers’ critique before data collection, and guards against questionable research practices such as p-hacking or HARK-ing. Providing the work is carried out as agreed, a study that has achieved stage one approval is likely to be published, allowing students the opportunity to publish their hard work, even if the findings are negative. Moreover, going through several rounds of peer-review on the proposed methodology provides an additional layer of rigour (good for science), that aids your defence in your viva voce (good for you). Of course, it is not all plain sailing and there are a several considerations students will need to make before embarking on an RR. Nonetheless, despite these concerns, this publishing format is a step in the right direction for ensuring that robust research is being conducted right down to the level of postgraduate students.
If you like the idea but do not think formal pre-registration with a journal is suitable for your project, perhaps consider using the OSF. The OSF is a site where researchers can timestamp their hypotheses and planned analyses, allowing them to develop hypothesis-driven research habits. In one research group, it is necessary for all studies ranging from undergraduate projects to grant-funded projects to be registered on third-party websites such as the OSF (Munafò 2015). Some researchers such as Chris Chambers have even made it a requirement for applicants wanting to join their group to demonstrate a prior commitment to open science practices (Chambers 2016). Starting to pre-register your studies and publish RRs as a postgraduate student demonstrates this commitment, and will prove to be crucial as open science practices become an essential criterion in recruitment.
“To junior researchers I would say that pre-registration — especially as a Registered Report — is an ideal option for publishing high-quality, hypothesis-driven research that reflects an investment both in good science and your future career” – Professor Chris Chambers
Pre-registration and RRs are both initiatives to improve the rigour and transparency of psychological science (Munafò et al. 2014). These initiatives are available to us as research students, and it is not just the responsibility of senior academics to fight against questionable research practises. We can join in too.
Thank you to Dr. Hannah Hobson who was happy to talk about her experience as a PhD student and for her expertise in recording the interview. Hannah also helped to write and revise the post. I would also like to thank Professor Chris Chambers for taking the time to provide some comments for the post.