Monkey Business 3

By Macartan Humphreys (Political Science, Columbia & EGAP)

I am sold on the idea of research registration. Two things convinced me.

First I have been teaching courses in which each week we try to replicate prominent results produced by political scientists and economists working on the political economy of development. I advise against doing this because it is very depressing. In many cases data is not available or results cannot be replicated even when it is. But even when results can be replicated, they often turn out to be extremely fragile. Look at them sideways and they fall over. The canon is a lot more delicate than it lets on.

Second I have tried out registration for myself. That was also depressing, this time because of what I learned about how I usually work. Before doing the real analysis on data from a big field experiment on development aid in Congo, we (Raul Sanchez de la Sierra, Peter van der Windt and I) wrote up a “mock report” using fake data on our outcome variables. Doing this forced us to make myriad decisions about how to do our analysis without the benefits of seeing how the analyses would play out. We did this partly for political reasons: a lot of people had a lot invested in this study and if they had different ideas about what constituted evidence, we wanted to know that upfront and not after the results came in. But what really surprised us was how hard it was to do it. I found that not having access to the results made it all the more obvious how much I am used to drawing on them when crafting analyses and writing; for simple decisions such as which exact measure to use for a given concept, which analyses to deepen, and which results to emphasize. More broadly that’s how our discipline works:  the most important peer feedback we receive, from reviewers or in talks, generally comes after our main analyses are complete and after our peers are exposed to the patterns in the data. For some purposes that’s fine, but it is not hard to see how it could produce just the kind of fragility I was seeing in published work.

These experiences convinced me that our current system is flawed. Registration offers one possible solution.