Tag Archives: Questionable Research Practices

The Test of Insufficient Variance (TIVA): A New Tool for the Detection of Questionable Research Practices

It has been known for decades that published results tend to be biased (Sterling, 1959). For most of the past decades this inconvenient truth has been ignored. In the past years, there have been many suggestions and initiatives to increase the replicability of reported scientific findings (Asendorpf et al., 2013). One approach is to examine published research results for evidence of questionable research practices (see Schimmack, 2014, for a discussion of existing tests). This blog post introduces a new test of bias in reported research findings, namely the Test of Insufficient Variance (TIVA).

TIVA is applicable to any set of studies that used null-hypothesis testing to conclude that empirical data provide support for an empirical relationship and reported a significance test (p-values).

Rosenthal (1978) developed a method to combine results of several independent studies by converting p-values into z-scores. This conversion uses the well-known fact that p-values correspond to the area under the curve of a normal distribution. Rosenthal did not discuss the relation between these z-scores and power analysis. Z-scores are observed scores that should follow a normal distribution around the non-centrality parameter that determines how much power a study has to produce a significant result. In the Figure, the non-centrality parameter is 2.2. This value is slightly above a z-score of 1.96, which corresponds to a two-tailed p-value of .05. A study with a non-centrality parameter of 2.2 has 60% power.  In specific studies, the observed z-scores vary as a function of random sampling error. The standardized normal distribution predicts the distribution of observed z-scores. As observed z-scores follow the standard normal distribution, the variance of an unbiased set of z-scores is 1.  The Figure on top illustrates this with the nine purple lines, which are nine randomly generated z-scores with a variance of 1.

In a real data set the variance can be greater than 1 for two reasons. First, if the nine studies are exact replication studies with different sample sizes, larger samples will have a higher non-centrality parameter than smaller samples. This variance in the true non-centrality variances adds to the variance produced by random sampling error. Second, a set of studies that are not exact replication studies can have variance greater than 1 because the true effect sizes can vary across studies. Again, the variance in true effect sizes produces variance in the true non-centrality parameters that add to the variance produced by random sampling error.  In short, the variance is 1 in exact replication studies that also hold the sample size constant. When sample sizes and true effect sizes vary, the variance in observed z-scores is greater than 1. Thus, an unbiased set of z-scores should have a minimum variance of 1.

If the variance in z-scores is less than 1, it suggests that the set of z-scores is biased. One simple reason for insufficient variance is publication bias. If power is 50% and the non-centrality parameter matches the significance criterion of 1.96, 50% of studies that were conducted would not be significant. If these studies are omitted from the set of studies, variance decreases from 1 to .36. Another reason for insufficient variance is that researchers do not report non-significant results or used questionable research practices to inflate effect size estimates. The effect is that variance in observed z-scores is restricted.  Thus, insufficient variance in observed z-scores reveals that the reported results are biased and provide an inflated estimate of effect size and replicability.

In small sets of studies, insufficient variance may be due to chance alone. It is possible to quantify how lucky a researcher was to obtain significant results with insufficient variance. This probability is a function of two parameters: (a) the ratio of the observed variance (OV) in a sample over the population variance (i.e., 1), and (b) the number of z-scores minus 1 as the degrees of freedom (k -1).

The product of these two parameters follows a chi-square distribution with k-1 degrees of freedom.

Formula 1: Chi-square = OV * (k – 1) with k-1 degrees of freedom.

Example 1:

Bem (2011) published controversial evidence that appear to demonstrate precognition. Subsequent studies failed to replicate these results (Galak et al.,, 2012) and other bias tests show evidence that the reported results are biased Schimmack (2012). For this reason, Bem’s article provides a good test case for TIVA.

Bem_p_ZThe article reported results of 10 studies with 9 z-scores being significant at p < .05 (one-tailed). The observed variance in the 10 z-scores is 0.19. Using Formula 1, the chi-square value is chi^2 (df = 9) = 1.75. Importantly, chi-square tests are usually used to test whether variance is greater than expected by chance (right tail of the distribution). The reason is that variance is not expected to be less than the variance expected by chance because it is typically assumed that a set of data is unbiased. To obtain a probability of insufficient variance, it is necessary to test the left-tail of the chi-square distribution.  The corresponding p-value for chi^2 (df = 9) = 1.75 is p = .005. Thus, there is only a 1 out of 200 probability that a random set of 10 studies would produce a variance as low as Var = .19.

This outcome cannot be attributed to publication bias because all studies were published in a single article. Thus, TIVA supports the hypothesis that the insufficient variance in Bem’s z-scores is the result of questionable research methods and that the reported effect size of d = .2 is inflated. The presence of bias does not imply that the true effect size is 0, but it does strongly suggest that the true effect size is smaller than the average effect size in a set of studies with insufficient variance.

Example 2:  

Vohs et al. (2006) published a series of studies that he results of nine experiments in which participants were reminded of money. The results appeared to show that “money brings about a self-sufficient orientation.” Francis and colleagues suggested that the reported results are too good to be true. An R-Index analysis showed an R-Index of 21, which is consistent with a model in which the null-hypothesis is true and only significant results are reported.

Because Vohs et al. (2006) conducted multiple tests in some studies, the median p-value was used for conversion into z-scores. The p-values and z-scores for the nine studies are reported in Table 2. The Figure on top of this blog illustrates the distribution of the 9 z-scores relative to the expected standard normal distribution.

Table 2

Study                    p             z          

Study 1                .026       2.23
Study 2                .050       1.96
Study 3                .046       1.99
Study 4                .039       2.06
Study 5                .021       2.99
Study 6                .040       2.06
Study 7                .026       2.23
Study 8                .023       2.28
Study 9                .006       2.73

The variance of the 9 z-scores is .054. This is even lower than the variance in Bem’s studies. The chi^2 test shows that this variance is significantly less than expected from an unbiased set of studies, chi^2 (df = 8) = 1.12, p = .003. An unusual event like this would occur in only 1 out of 381 studies by chance alone.

In conclusion, insufficient variance in z-scores shows that it is extremely likely that the reported results overestimate the true effect size and replicability of the reported studies. This confirms earlier claims that the results in this article are too good to be true (Francis et al., 2014). However, TIVA is more powerful than the Test of Excessive Significance and can provide more conclusive evidence that questionable research practices were used to inflate effect sizes and the rate of significant results in a set of studies.


TIVA can be used to examine whether a set of published p-values was obtained with the help of questionable research practices. When p-values are converted into z-scores, the variance of z-scores should be greater or equal to 1. Insufficient variance suggests that questionable research practices were used to avoid publishing non-significant results; this includes simply not reporting failed studies.

At least within psychology, these questionable research practices are used frequently to compensate for low statistical power and they are not considered scientific misconduct by governing bodies of psychological science (APA, APS, SPSP). Thus, the present results do not imply scientific misconduct by Bem or Vohs, just like the use of performance enhancing drugs in sports is not illegal unless a drug is put on an anti-doping list. However, jut because a drug is not officially banned, it does not mean that the use of a drug has no negative effects on a sport and its reputation.

One limitation of TIVA is that it requires a set of studies and that variance in small sets of studies can vary considerably just by chance. Another limitation is that TIVA is not very sensitive when there is substantial heterogeneity in true non-centrality parameters. In this case, the true variance in z-scores can mask insufficient variance in random sampling error. For this reason, TIVA is best used in conjunction with other bias tests. Despite these limitations, the present examples illustrate that TIVA can be a powerful tool in the detection of questionable research practices.  Hopefully, this demonstration will lead to changes in the way researchers view questionable research practices and how the scientific community evaluates results that are statistically improbable. With rejection rates at top journals of 80% or more, one would hope that in the future editors will favor articles that report results from studies with high statistical power that obtain significant results that are caused by the predicted effect.

Roy Baumeister’s R-Index

“We did run multiple studies, some of which did not work, and some of which worked better than others. You may think that not reporting the less successful studies is wrong, but that is how the field works.” (Roy Baumeister, personal email communication)

The R-Index can be used to evaluate the replicability of a set of statistical results. It can be used to evaluate the statistical research integrity of journals, articles on a specific topic (meta-analysis), and researchers. Just like the H-Index has become a popular metric of research excellence, the R-Index of individual researchers can be used to evaluate the replicability of their findings.

I chose Roy Baumeister as an example for several reasons. First, the R-Index is based on my earlier work on the incredibility-index (Schimmack, 2012). In this article, I demonstrated how power analysis can be used to reveal that researchers used questionable research practices to produce statistically significant results. I illustrated this approach with two articles. One article published 10 experiments that appeared to demonstrate time-reversed causality. Independent replication studies failed to replicate this incredible finding. The Incredibility-Index predicted this failure. The second article was a study on glucose consumption and will-power with Roy Baumeister as the senior author. The Incredibility-Index showed that the statistical results reported in this article were even less credible than the time-travel studies in Bem’s (2011) article.

Not surprisingly, Roy Baumeister was a reviewer of the incredibility article. During the review process, Roy Baumeister explained why his article reported more significant results than one would expect on the basis of the statistical power of these studies.

“My paper with Gailliot et al. (2007) is used as an illustration here. Of course, I am quite familiar with the process and history of that one. We initially submitted it with more studies, some of which had weaker results. The editor said to delete those. He wanted the paper shorter so as not to use up a lot of journal space with mediocre results. It worked: the resulting paper is shorter and stronger. Does that count as magic? The studies deleted at the editor’s request are not the only story. I am pretty sure there were other studies that did not work. Let us suppose that our hypotheses were correct and that our research was impeccable. Then several of our studies would have failed, simply given the realities of low power and random fluctuations. Is anyone surprised that those studies were not included in the draft we submitted for publication? If we had included them, certainly the editor and reviewers would have criticized them and formed a more negative impression of the paper. Let us suppose that they still thought the work deserved publication (after all, as I said, we are assuming here that the research was impeccable and the hypotheses correct). Do you think the editor would have wanted to include those studies in the published version?”

To my knowledge this is one of the few frank acknowledgements that questionable research practices (i.e., excluding evidence that does not support an author’s theory) contributed to the picture-perfect results in a published article. It is therefore instructive to examine the R-Index of a researcher who openly acknowledged that the reported results are a biased selection of the empirical evidence.

A tricky issue in any statistical analysis is the sampling of studies. In this case it would be possible to conduct the analysis on the full set of articles published by Roy Baumeister. However, for my analysis I selected a sample. To ensure that the sample is unbiased, I chose a sampling strategy that makes a priori sense and does not involve random sampling because I have control over the random generator. My sampling strategy was to focus on the Top 10 most cited original research articles.

To evaluate the R-Index, it is instructive to keep the following scenarios in mind.

  1. The null-hypothesis is true and a researcher uses questionable research practices to obtain just significant results (p = .049999). The observed power for this set of studies is 50%, but all statistical results are significant, 100% success rate. The success rate is inflated by 50%. The R-Index is observed power minus inflation rate, which is 0%.
  2. The null-hypothesis is true and a researcher drops non-significant results and/or uses questionable research methods that capitalize on chance. In this case, p-values above .05 are not reported and p-values below .05 have a uniform distribution with a median of .025. A p-value of .025 corresponds to 61% observed power. With 100% significant results, the inflation rate is 39%, and the R-Index is 22% (61%-39%).
  3. The null-hypothesis is false and researcher conducts studies with 30% power. The non-significant studies are not published. In this case, observed power is 70%. With 100% success rate, the inflation rate is 30%. The R-Index is 40%.
  4. The null-hypothesis is false and researcher conducts studies with 50% power. The non-significant studies are not published. In this case, observed power is 75%. With 100% success rate, the inflation rate is 25%. The R-Index is 50%.
  5. The null-hypothesis is false and researchers conduct studies with 80% power, as recommended by Cohen. The non-significant results are not published (20% missing). In this case, observed power is 90% with 100% significant results. With 10% inflation rate, the R-Index is 80% (90% – 10%).
  6. A sample of psychological studies published in 2008 produced an R-Index of 43% (Observed Power = 72%, Success Rate = 100%, Inflation Rate = 28%). Exact replications of these studies produced a success rate of 28%.

Roy Baumeister’s Top-10 articles contained 40 studies. Each study reported multiple statistical tests. I computed the median observed power of statistical tests that tested a theoretically relevant hypothesis. I also recorded whether the test was considered supportive of the theoretical hypothesis (typically, p < .05). The median observed power in this set of 40 studies was 69%. The success rate was 89%. The inflation rate is 20% and the R-Index is 49% (69% – 20%).

Roy Baumeister’s R-Index of 49% is consistent with his statement that his articles do not contain all of the studies that tested a theoretical prediction. Studies that tested theoretical predictions and failed to support them are missing. An R-Index of 49% is also consistent with Roy Baumeister’s claim that his practices reflect the common practices in the field. Other sets of studies in social psychology produce similar indices (e.g., replicability project of psychological studies, R-Index = 43%; success rate in empirical replication studies 28%).

In conclusion, Roy Baumeister’s acknowledged the use of questionable research practices (i.e., excluding evidence that does not support a theoretical hypothesis) and his R-Index is 49%. The R-Index of a representative set of studies in psychology in 2008 produced an R-Index of 42%. This suggests that the use of questionable research practices in psychology is widespread and the R-Index is able to detect the use of these practices. A set of studies that were subjected to empirical replication attempts produced a R-Index of 38%, and 28% of replication attempts were successful (72% failed).

The R-Index makes it possible to quantify and compare the use of questionable research practices and I hope it will encourage researchers to conduct fewer and more powerful studies. I also hope that a quantitative index makes it possible to make replicability an evaluation criterion for scientists.

So what could Roy Baumeister have done? He published 9 studies that supported his hypothesis and excluded several more studies because they were underpowered.  I suggest running fewer studies with higher power so that all studies can produce significant results, assuming the null-hypothesis is really false.

The Replicability-Index (R-Index): Quantifying Research Integrity

ANNIVERSARY POST.  Slightly edited version of first R-Index Blog on December 1, 2014.

In a now infamous article, Bem (2011) produced 9 (out of 10) statistically significant results that appeared to show time-reversed causality.  Not surprisingly, subsequent studies failed to replicate this finding.  Although Bem never admitted it, it is likely that he used questionable research practices to produce his results. That is, he did not just run 10 studies and found 9 significant results. He may have dropped failed studies, deleted outliers, etc.  It is well-known among scientists (but not lay people) that researchers routinely use these questionable practices to produce results that advance their careers.  Think, doping for scientists.

I have developed a statistical index that tracks whether published results were obtained by conducting a series of studies with a good chance of producing a positive result (high statistical power) or whether researchers used questionable research practices.  The R-Index is a function of the observed power in a set of studies. More power means that results are likely to replicate in a replication attempt.  The second component of the R-index is the discrepancy between observed power and the rate of significant results. 100 studies with 80% power should produce, on average, 80% significant results. If observed power is 80% and the success rate is 100%, questionable research practices were used to obtain more significant results than the data justify.  In this case, the actual power is less than 80% because questionable research practices inflate observed power. The R-index subtracts the discrepancy (in this case 20% too many significant results) from observed power to adjust for the inflation.  For example, if observed power is 80% and success rate is 100%, the discrepancy is 20% and the R-index is 60%.

In a paper, I show that the R-index predicts success in empirical replication studies.

The R-index also sheds light on the recent controversy about failed replications in psychology (repligate) between replicators and “replihaters.”   Replicators sometimes imply that failed replications are to be expected because original studies used small samples with surprisingly large effects, possibly due to the use of questionable research practices. Replihaters counter that replicators are incompetent researchers who are motivated to produce failed studies.  The R-Index makes it possible to evaluate these claims objectively and scientifically.  It shows that the rampant use of questionable research practices in original studies makes it extremely likely that replication studies will fail.  Replihaters should take note that questionable research practices can be detected and that many failed replications are predicted by low statistical power in original articles.