Field of Science

Anonymice run wild through science

I recently mentioned Jack Shafer's long-standing irritation at the over-use of anonymous sources in journalism. Sometimes the irritation is at using anonymous sources to report banalities. In my favorite column in that series (which has unfortunately been moribund for the last year or two), Shafer calls out anonymous sources whose identities are transparent. Why pretend to be anonymous when a simple Google search will identify you?

I had a similar question recently when reading the method section of a psychology research paper. Here is the first paragraph from the method section:
Sixteen 4-year-olds (age: M = 4,7; range = 4,1-4,11), and 25 college students (age: M = 18,10; range = 18,4-19,6) participated in this study. All participants were residents of a small midwestern city. Children were recruited from university-run preschools and adults were undergraduate students at a large public university.
Small midwestern city? Large public university? I could Google the two authors, but luckily the paper already states helpfully on the front page that both authors work at the University of Michigan, located in Ann Arbor (a small midwestern city). Maybe the subject recruitment and testing was done in some other university town, but that's unlikely.

This false anonymity is common -- though not universal -- in psychology papers. I'm picking on this one not because I have any particular beef with these authors (which is why I'm not naming names), but simply because I happened to be reading their paper today.

This brings up the larger issue of the code of ethics under which research is done (here are the regulations at Harvard). After some notable ethical lapses in the early days of human research (for instance, Dr. Waterhouse trying out the smallpox vaccine on children), it became clear that regulations were needed. As with any regulations, however, form often wins over substance. A lab I used to work at had a very short consent form that said something to the effect that in the experiment, you'll read words, speak out loud, and it won't hurt. This was later replaced with a multi-page consent form, probably at the request of our university ethics board, but I'm not sure. The effect was that our participants stopped reading the consent form before signing it. This was entirely predictable, and I think it is an example of valuing the form -- in particular, having participants sign a form -- over substance -- protecting research participants.

Since most of the research in a psychology department is less dangerous than filling out a Cosmo quiz, this doesn't really keep me up at night. However, I think it's worth periodically rethinking our regulations in light of their purpose.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This practice is so rampant that you've done it yourself within this very post. So why not reveal to us the identity of the "lab I used to work at"?