Publication bias in the social sciences: Unlocking the file drawer

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Science  19 Sep 2014:
Vol. 345, Issue 6203, pp. 1502-1505
DOI: 10.1126/science.1255484

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The file drawer is full. Should we worry?

Experiments that produce null results face a higher barrier to publication than those that yield statistically significant differences. Whether this is a problem depends on how many null but otherwise valid results might be trapped in the file drawer. Franco et al. use a Time-sharing Experiments in the Social Sciences archive of nearly 250 peer-reviewed proposals of social science experiments conducted on nationally representative samples. They find that only 10 out of 48 null results were published, whereas 56 out of 91 studies with strongly significant results made it into a journal.

Science, this issue p. 1502


We studied publication bias in the social sciences by analyzing a known population of conducted studies—221 in total—in which there is a full accounting of what is published and unpublished. We leveraged Time-sharing Experiments in the Social Sciences (TESS), a National Science Foundation–sponsored program in which researchers propose survey-based experiments to be run on representative samples of American adults. Because TESS proposals undergo rigorous peer review, the studies in the sample all exceed a substantial quality threshold. Strong results are 40 percentage points more likely to be published than are null results and 60 percentage points more likely to be written up. We provide direct evidence of publication bias and identify the stage of research production at which publication bias occurs: Authors do not write up and submit null findings.

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