The Cost of Knowledge, a matter of life and death

Did you know that psychological research can be a matter of life and death? Two researchers, Rodin and Langer, showed in the late 70-ties that elderly in nursing homes lived longer and had improved quality of life when they were more involved in daily events such as the choose of diner, type of leisure activity and so on. This is a result of a well-known fundamental psychological process, namely the relationship between perceived control and reward. It is a process that is often studied with visual illusions like the dot-illusion. However, this is not about illusions, but about the fact that even the most fundamental theoretical research can have a profound impact on real world problems. There is only one crucial problem… the accessibility to this knowledge.

With our traditional publication systems, people have to pay to have access to published research. This means that professionals from outside the scientific world have often no access to it, because they are often not willing to pay the exorbitant prices for it. But, also scientist themselves have often no access to the their peers research or even to their own research because their academic institution cannot afford to subscribe for all the scientific journals. This problem is known as the pay-wall and access barrier which seriously limits the value of our scientific research.

Although the problem was already known for several years and many researchers drew the attention on it, it was not until 2012 that the problem got a lot of attention both within and outside the academic world. On January 21, 2012 the mathematician Timothy Growers of Cambridge University posted his blog “Elsevier – my part in its downfall”. In this blog he stated that he refuse to have anything to do in the future with one of the biggest commercial publishers, Elsevier. According to him and many researchers who supported his statement Elsevier is an exemplar of everything that is wrong with the current publication system. The pay-wall and access barrier were the central points in his objections toward them.

As a response on his call to attention, the petition “The Cost of Knowledge” was created. In this petition researchers declare that they will not publish, refer or do editorial work for journals published by Elsevier. Nowadays, almost 14,000 researchers signed the petition and so, support the boycott of Elsevier. At the same time, it enhanced the Academic Spring, a movement formed by researchers, academics and scholars who oppose the traditional publication system and promote open access as an alternative model. Their ultimate goal is fairer access to published research. Only then can science fully contribute to our society and its problems, and… can it makes the difference between life and death.

Evalyne Thauvoye

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Articles are no IKEA-manuals for replication studies

During our career as psychology research students we learned to read articles and to evaluate them critically. We learned that articles are divided in different sections which highlight the different aspects of the research process and moreover, we learned to not skip the methodology section. We learned that the methodology section contains the core of the actual experiment and therefore reveals not only the strengths of the study, but also the weaknesses. By learning to evaluate the methodology section, we learned also that sometimes things are not clear and that we have to assume certain things. However, at the end, we think that we comprehend the most important aspects of the article and so the study in its entirety.

But was does that mean “comprehending the study”? Does that mean that we know now every aspect of the study, that everything is clear? Does that mean that we should be able to do the same study by ourselves? Or in scientific terms, that we are able to replicate the study?

Unfortunately, the answer is disappointing. If we are lucky, the original researchers provided some additional material with for example more detailed information about the stimuli, the script and so on. However, even with the additional information, many important questions remain unanswered. If we are lucky twice, the original researchers are prepared to give the remaining answers or even willing to cooperate in the replication. But even then, the replication is not guaranteed. Additional problems and dilemmas impose themselves: participants with other (cultural) backgrounds, weak procedure-aspects, dubious interpretations, weird analyses, missing elements,…

So what did I learned this time? Replication studies are not boring at all, although half the world think. It is defiant, difficult, and demands much research skills. Furthermore, the methodology sections are indeed the core of the experiment, but they should be seen more as the skeleton for which we have to search the coating by ourselves. And finally, research articles give an image of the conducted research, but they are, however, no clear IKEA-manuals for how we should replicate the study step by step.

Evalyne Thauvoye

I’m WEIRD, is that a problem?

We as psychologist students have two things in common. First, on a given moment in our life we chose to study psychology and second, in our first year of psychology we all had to participate in several (psychological) experiments. Do these two commonalities make us different from other people? And if so, do they have implications for the way we view human behaviour?  The answer is yes and the answer is no.

Most psychology students belong to a group which is called “WEIRD”; they belong to Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic societies. Although WEIRD people only represent 12% of the human population, they account for 96% of participants in behavioural experiments. What is remarkable, is that most of these behavioural studies claim to study “human behaviour”.  How valid is it to study human behaviour when you only incorporate a tiny part of it into your sample?GSBS

When you think about seeing or hearing; important aspects of human behaviour,  you would intuitively guess these are prototypes of behaviour that does not show great variability within the whole population. However, even in the case of the basic cognitive process of seeing, it turns out people can interpret visual input differently. In a study of Segal (1966), it was shown that people from small scale societies interpret visual illusions different compared to people from industrialized countries; they were less vulnerable to the illusions. An often given explanation for this is that the way our environment is constructed affects how we perceive the world: living in a society with lots of geometrically shaped buildings shapes your interpretation of visual input.
There are as well differences between people who are from WEIRD societies themselves. Different experiments have illustrated striking social differences in the way Asian versus Western people conform to rules or in the way they judge themselves and the people around them. Even when we go further down the hierarchy, we find differences between Western and non-Western societies, between Americans and non-Americans, and so on. But, are all these differences a problem?

The differences themselves are not a problem, but the way researchers investigate and not take them into account is a serious problem, however. As we said before, we as psychology students, or WEIRD-people, have been the subject of a tremendous amount of behavioural studies. When researchers interpret and publish their results, they often overlook the differences between people. They generalize their results to the whole human population, although most results were based on a limited and homogeneous WEIRD subject pool. As a result, researchers throw psychological phenomena such as the “fundamental” attribution error into the world as being a universal human trait, only to find out after a couple of years later this phenomenon is not fundamental at all, but instead a typical Western tendency.

So, there is not a problem in being WEIRD, but a problem in forgetting to be WEIRD. When doing research as WEIRD researchers, we should be aware we are people with possibly different attitudes and behaviours and we should be aware that we only represent a tiny part of the whole human population. This means, a lot of last century’s gathered knowledge about human behaviour  is only applicable to a small group of people. In the next century,  maybe we should focus somewhat more on the other 88

of the world?

Evalyne & Joanne