Toward a norm of results-free peer review and “ex ante science”

Vox recently posted an article on “problems facing science” (link). A panel of 270 scientists from across a range of disciplines chimed in. A major theme, and arguably the biggest problem identified after issues related to accessing grants, was that “bad incentives” undermine scientific integrity. Specifically, these bad incentives arise because publication and grant decisions tend overwhelmingly to be based on assessments of whether research results are “exciting.” Vox also reported that the “fix” for this problem, as suggested by many of the panelists, was for editors and reviewers to “put a greater emphasis on rigorous methods and processes rather than splashy results.”

Recently, Comparative Political Studies hosted a special issue dedicated to applying a results-free review process (link). The editors of this special issue concluded that the process promoted attention to “theoretical consistency and substantive importance.” It introduced some complications too, such as questions about how to handle statistically insignificant results and how to accommodate research designs other than experiments or certain types of observational templates. But generally, they concluded that the process “exceeded our expectations.”

These two articles reference other detailed arguments promoting the idea of review based on whether hypotheses are well motivated and methods rigorously applied. I have also elaborated on why I think this kind of “ex ante science” is a good idea (link1 link2). The principles of “ex ante science” are to evaluate the value of applied empirical research contributions on the basis of whether the empirical analyses are well motivated in substantive or theoretical terms, whether the empirical methods are tightly derived from the substantive motivation, and whether the proposed empirical methods are robust. One avoids referencing results in judging the value of the contribution.

Here I want to suggest something that we can start doing immediately to promote this goal: voluntary commitment by journal reviewers to evaluate manuscripts on the basis of principles of ex ante science. Journal editors give reviewers discretion to apply their judgment in evaluating a manuscript. This grants a license to those interested in promoting the principles of ex ante science to do just that.

Here are some operational guidelines. As a reviewer you could begin by masking results prior to starting to read a manuscript. Then, you could structure your review so that it addresses the questions pertaining to the principles stated above.

Let’s take it even further, in the interest of promoting a norm of reviews based on principles of ex ante science: To resolve any ambiguity about one’s commitments to these principles, as a reviewer make it explicit. Reviews could begin with a declaration along the lines of “This review is based on assessments of whether or not the empirical analyses are well motivated and the empirical methods robust. Results were masked in judging the merits of the manuscript.”

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