solving the file drawer problem by making the internet the drawer

UPDATE 11/22/2011 — Hal Pashler’s group at UCSD just introduced a new website called PsychFileDrawer that’s vastly superior in every way to the prototype I mention in the post below; be sure to check it out!

Science is a difficult enterprise, so scientists have many problems. One particularly nasty problem is the File Drawer Problem. The File Drawer Problem is actually related to another serious scientific problem known as the Desk Problem. The Desk Problem is that many scientists have messy desks covered with overflowing stacks of papers, which can make it very hard to find things on one’s desk–or, for that matter, to clear enough space to lay down another stack of papers.  A common solution to the Desk Problem is to shove all of those papers into one’s file drawer. Which brings us to the the File Drawer Problem. The File Drawer Problem refers to the fact that, eventually, even the best-funded of scientists run out of room in their file drawers.

Ok, so that’s not exactly right. What the file drawer problem–a term coined by Robert Rosenthal in a seminal 1979 article–really refers to is the fact that null results tend to go unreported in the scientific literature at a much higher rate than positive findings, because journals don’t like to publish papers that say “we didn’t find anything”, and as a direct consequence, authors don’t like to write papers that say “journals won’t want to publish this”.

Because of this blatant prejudice systematic bias against null results, the eventual resting place of many a replication failure is its author’s file drawer. The reason this is a problem is that, over the long term, if only (or mostly) positive findings ever get published, researchers can get a very skewed picture of how strong an effect really is. To illustrate, let’s say that Joe X publishes a study showing that people with lawn gnomes in their front yards tend to be happier than people with no lawn gnomes in their yards. Intuitive as that result may be, someone is inevitably going to get the crazy idea that this effect is worth replicating once or twice before we all stampede toward Home Depot or the Container Store with our wallets out (can you tell I’ve never bought a lawn gnome before?). So let’s say Suzanna Y and Ramesh Z each independently try to replicate the effect in their labs (meaning, they command their graduate students to do it). And they find… nothing! No effect. Turns out, people with lawn gnomes are just as miserable as the rest of us. Well, you don’t need a PhD in lawn decoration to recognize that Suzanna Y and Ramesh Z are not going to have much luck publishing their findings in very prestigious journals–or for that matter, in any journals. So those findings get buried into their file drawers, where they will live out the rest of their days with very sad expressions on their numbers.

Now let’s iterate this process several times. Every couple of years, some enterprising young investigator will decide she’s going to try to replicate that cool effect from 2009, since no one else seems to have bothered to do it. This goes on for a while, with plenty of null results, until eventually, just by chance, someone gets lucky (if you can call a false positive lucky) and publishes a successful replication. And also, once in a blue moon, someone who gets a null result actually bothers to forces their graduate student to write it up, and successfully gets out a publication that very carefully explains that, no, Virginia, lawn gnomes don’t really make you happy. So, over time, a small literature on the hedonic effects of lawn gnomes accumulates.

Eventually, someone else comes across this small literature and notices that it contains “mixed findings”, with some studies finding an effect, and others finding no effect. So this special someone–let’s call them the Master of the Gnomes–decides to do a formal meta-analysis. (A meta-analysis is basically just a fancy way of taking a bunch of other people’s studies, throwing them in a blender, and pouring out the resulting soup into a publication of your very own.) Now you can see why the failure to publish null results is going to be problematic: What the Master of the Gnomes doesn’t know about, the Master of the Gnomes can’t publish about. So any resulting meta-analytic estimate of the association between lawn gnomes and subjective well-being is going to be biased in the positive directio. That is, there’s a good chance that the meta-analysis will end up saying lawn gnomes make people very happy,when in reality lawn gnomes only make people a little happy, or don’t make people happy at all.

There are lots of ways to try to get around the file drawer problem, of course. One approach is to call up everyone you know who you think might have ever done any research on lawn gnomes and ask if you could take a brief peek into their file drawer. But meta-analysts are often very introverted people with no friends, so they may not know any other researchers. Or they might be too shy to ask other people for their data. And then too, some researchers are very protective of their file drawers, because in some cases, they’re hiding more than just papers in there. Bottom line, it’s not always easy to identify all of the null results that are out there.

A very different way to deal with the file drawer problem, and one suggested by Rosenthal in his 1979 article, is to compute a file drawer number, which is basically a number that tells you how many null results that you don’t know about would have to exist in people’s file drawers before the meta-analytic effect size estimate was itself rendered null. So, for example, let’s say you do a meta-analysis of 28 studies, and find that your best estimate, taking all studies into account, is that the standardized effect size (Cohen’s d) is 0.63, which is quite a large effect, and is statistically different from 0 at, say, the p < .00000001 level. Intuitively, that may seem like a lot of zeros, but being a careful methodologist, you decide you’d like a more precise definition of “a lot”. So you compute the file drawer number (in one of its many permutations), and it turns out that there would have to be 4,640,204 null results out there in people’s file drawers before the meta-analytic effect size became statistically non-significant. That’s a lot of studies, and it’s doubtful that there are even that many people studying lawn gnomes, so you can probably feel comfortable that there really is an association there, and that it’s fairly large.

The problem, of course, is that it doesn’t always turn out that way. Sometimes you do the meta-analysis and find that your meta-analytic effect is cutting it pretty close, and that it would only take, say, 12 null results to render the effect non-significant. At that point, the file drawer N is no help; no amount of statistical cleverness is going to give you the extrasensory ability to peer into people’s file drawers at a distance. Moreover, even in cases where you can feel relatively confident that there couldn’t possibly be enough null results out there to make your effect go away entirely, it’s still possible that there are enough null results out there to substantially weaken it. Generally speaking, the file drawer N is a number you compute because you have to, not because you want to. In an ideal world, you’d always have all the information readily available at your fingertips, and all that would be left for you to do is toss it all in the blender and hit “liquify” “meta-analyze”. But of course, we don’t live in an ideal world; we live in a horrible world full of things like tsunamis, lip syncing, and publication bias.

This brings me, in a characteristically long-winded way, to the point of this post. The fact that researchers often don’t have access to other researchers’ findings–null result or not–is in many ways a vestige of the fact that, until recently, there was no good way to rapidly and easily communicate one’s findings to others in an informal way. Of course, the telephone has been around for a long time, and the postal service has been around even longer. But the problem with telling other people what you found on the telephone is that they have to be listening, and you don’t really know ahead of time who’s going to want to hear about your findings. When Rosenthal was writing about file drawers in the 80s, there wasn’t any bulletin board where people could post their findings for all to see without going to the trouble of actually publishing them, so it made sense to focus on ways to work around the file drawer problem instead of through it.

These days, we do have a bulletin board where researchers can post their null results: The internet. In theory, an online database of null results presents an ideal solution to the file drawer problem: Instead of tossing their replication failures into a folder somewhere, researchers could spend a minute or two entering just a minimal amount of information into an online database, and that information would then live on in perpetuity, accessible to anyone else who cared to come along and enter the right keyword into the search box. Such a system could benefit everyone involved: researchers who ended up with unpublishable results could salvage at least some credit for their efforts, and ensure that their work wasn’t entirely lost to the sands of time; prospective meta-analysts could simplify the task of hunting down relevant findings in unlikely places; and scientists contemplating embarking on a new line of research that built heavily on an older finding could do a cursory search to see if other people had already tried (and failed) to replicate the foundational effect.

Sounds good, right? At least, that was my thought process last year, when I spent some time building an online database that could serve as this type of repository for null (and, occasionally, not-null) results. I got a working version up and running at failuretoreplicate.com, and was hoping to spend some time begging people to use it trying to write it up as a short paper, but then I started sinking into the quicksand of my dissertation, and promptly forgot about it. What jogged my memory was this post a couple of days ago, which describes a database, called the Negatome, that contains “a collection of protein and domain (functional units of proteins) pairs thatare unlikely to be engaged in direct physical interactions”. This isn’t exactly the same thing as a database of null results, and is in a completely different field, but it was close enough to rekindle my interest and motivate me to dust off the site I built last year. So now the site is here, and it’s effectively open for business.

I should confess up front that I don’t harbor any great hopes of this working; I suspect it will be quite difficult to build the critical mass needed to make something like this work. Still, I’d like to try. The site is officially in beta, so stuff will probably still break occasionally, but it’s basically functional. You can create an account instantly and immediately start adding studies; it only takes a minute or two per study. There’s no need to enter much in the way of detail; the point isn’t to provide an alternative to peer-reviewed publication, but rather to provide a kind of directory service that researchers could use as a cursory tool for locating relevant information. All you have to do is enter a brief description of the effect you tried to replicate, an indication of whether or not you succeeded, and what branch of psychology the effect falls under. There are plenty of other fields you can enter (e.g., searchable tags, sample sizes, description of procedures, etc.), but they’re almost all optional. The goal is really to make this as effortless as possible for people to use, so that there is no virtually no cost to contributing.

Anyway, right now there’s nothing on the site except a single lonely record I added in order to get things started. I’d be very grateful to anyone who wants to help this project off the ground by adding a study or two. There are full editing and deletion capabilities, so you can always delete anything you add later on if you decide you don’t want to share after all. My hope is that, given enough community involvement and a large enough userbase, this could eventually become a valuable resource psychologists could rely on when trying to establish how likely a finding is to replicate, or when trying to identify relevant studies to include in meta-analyses. You do want to help figure out what effect those sneaky, sneaky lawn gnomes have on our collective mental health, right?

4 thoughts on “solving the file drawer problem by making the internet the drawer”

  1. tal, great that you set this up! shouldn’t it be called “filedrawer” (or “nullstudies”), though? it would be good to capture the full record of attempts to test a hypothesis, without missing failures that occur before initial publication. meta-analyses need those, too. null findings might be frequent and direct replication attempts rare in our field. plus: more traffic for you. –niko

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