Rigor Mortis

Rigor Mortis

The rigor of scientifically-based research with doctored data could be mortis

by Richard P. Phelps (2002)

Let’s assume for the moment that the Bush Administration’s interest in “scientifically-based” “what works” research is sincere. (I have some doubts.) At best, unfortunately, their plans address only one of the three underlying sources of low-quality education research: poor methodology. Given that, no one should expect a dramatic increase in the overall quality of education research anytime soon, no matter how successfully the Administration implements its programs.

The “Awful Reputation of Education Research”
Many university-based researchers thumb their noses at their campus education schools. They appreciate the revenue these cash cows provide, with their captive audience of potential teachers who must go to university to be credentialed before they can work for a living. But, typically, they may also regard education research as one wide notch below the rest of the academy’s in its quality and rigor. They may say that education is a “synthetic” discipline with no theory or methods of its own (i.e., education researchers borrow from psychology, sociology, history, and so on). They may say even worse.

Mind you, I think that some education research is of awful quality; but, I don’t think that is because education is a “synthetic” or “derivative” discipline, nor because education researchers are ignorant of good research methodology. Answer this quiz: think of the two most popular and influential advances in social science research methodology of the past couple of decades and then identify where “on campus” their progenitors resided. If you are thinking the way I want you to, you guessed “meta-analysis” and “multi-level modeling” (a.k.a., hierarchical linear modeling). Where “on campus” did the main champions of these new, wonderful research techniques reside? ...in education schools. That education school professors are hardly the ignorant folk some other professors make them out to be is my point.

So, granted, one of the three major sources of poor quality in education research is a poor understanding of research methodology, but only some of the time and on the part of some researchers. The other two major sources of poor education research quality are, at best, only tangentially addressed by the Bush Administration initiatives. They are: 1) censorship and (2) dishonesty.

There, I said it. I used the “d” word. Few are willing to. Most education researchers must know that some education research is dishonest. Some who know, however, may consider the dishonesty justified. They may reason that dishonesty for a good cause–more money or power for the “good guys”–is a necessary means to a noble end. Others who know are simply not willing to label the dishonesty for what it is, because to do so would be impolite. At most, they might redo a dishonestly-conducted analysis and, in doing so, identify their effort as a “re-analysis. “Re-analysis” implies only that one is conducting the research study in a different manner than that used previously; it casts no aspersions as to motive. Tiptoeing through doctored data with euphemisms such as “re-analysis” however, at least is more informative than the far more common alternative, of accepting the results of dishonest research as valid.

In most cases, education research dishonesty is simply ignored, even by those who know it for what it is. To accuse a professional colleague of dishonest research can be tantamount to professional suicide, particularly if the dishonest researcher is well connected and well regarded. Expose their fraud, and one probably ruins any chance one might once have had for a high profile, successful career in education research. The whistleblower’s fate is no more appealing inside the education establishment than inside the average corporation.

Thus, many, if not most, dishonest research results float around as flotsam on the sea of education facts, cited endlessly in other research works, motivating new research questions, offered as evidence for particular policy prescriptions in public or in the courts, and written up by journalists as the latest findings of objective science, equivalent in quality to discoveries in cancer research.

Unfortunately, a standard meta-analysis does the same, casting a drift net into the flotsam sea and hauling in whatever gets attached.

Meta-analysis, one of the methodological techniques held up as something of a solution to the perceived problem of poor quality in education research, reviews the basic, reported statistical parameters of many published studies on a single topic and, in summarizing the mass of data, arrives at an overarching conclusion of what “all the research” on that topic tells us. Meta-analytic researchers include arguably the most important information reported by each reviewed study--the number of cases or sample size; the variables incorporated in the analysis, the method of analysis, the size of the effect reported, and so on. Essentially, meta-analysis reviews the statistical “box score” reported by every relevant study.

Meta-analysis, however, assumes that every study reviewed was conducted and reported honestly. It assumes that the data have not been doctored, the numbers fudged or made up, the literature review censored or deliberately kept incomplete, and so on. A good meta-analysis will screen studies that are reviewed and toss those of poor quality overboard. For the most part, however, the quality judgments are made of the methodology and process, not the data. A well-conducted study that incorporates doctored data, or that reports doctored results, is likely to be kept on board and processed as a good quality catch.

Unfortunately, it is my personal experience in reviewing, auditing, and checking the details provided by studies of the education topics with which I am most familiar that a shockingly large proportion of studies in the education research literature are fraudulent (i.e., something very basic about them, integral to their results, is demonstrably erroneous, and probably intentionally so).

The problem of fraud in education research is not likely to be found through meta-analysis, however, because it does not dig into the details far enough, or by the smartest researchers in the world with impeccable, independent reputations. Indeed, meta-analysis can incorporate and legitimize the results of fraudulent research, extending its influence more deeply into public policy.

Out of naivete or convenience, we tend to assume that research in the “peer-reviewed,” “scientific,” “academic” literature is conducted honestly and reported on the up-and-up and, in education at least, such is often not the case. The first time I uncovered fraudulent research, I was surprised. I was reading a research report written by an education professor on a tiny subtopic of research on standardized testing, a subtopic in which probably less than half a dozen scholars are expert. It was a prototypical example of lying with statistics--numbers were left out if they didn't serve the conclusion, data were altered, costs were made up, benefits were ignored, numbers were labeled with misleading descriptions, definitions were changed surreptitiously, supportive research was cited that did not contain the evidence claimed, and solid research that did not support the preferred conclusion was ignored. Very few readers would have had a deep enough or broad enough familiarity with the topic to notice these problems, though. To this day, the results of that research have been cited widely and accepted as fact by thousands.

At the time, I assumed that it must represent an exceptional case. Then I read more research reports with doctored data and surreptitiously altered definitions of terms. I realized that I wasn't reading aberrant research; it was actually fairly common. Nor, I am convinced, was much of it done incompetently. This was research conducted in a deliberate way by very intelligent scholars, some considered tops in their field. It was simply conducted dishonestly and reported misleadingly.

There are many different ways to commit research fraud, more than the space here allows me to list. I describe some in detail in chapter 2 of the book Kill the messenger: The war on standardized testing (Transaction, 2003). Darryl Huff’s classic How to lie with statistics, about the misleading use of data in advertising, is equally applicable to some education research techniques, too.

In many instances, the perpetrators of education research fraud can duck any accusations through “plausible deniability” claims. In other instances, the fraud is so blatant (blatant, that is, to anyone who takes the time to look at the details), that accusations could not possibly be ducked. The beauty of the current system is that fraud perpetrators are rarely accused, and even when accused, it is rarely done in any public way. Indeed, some consider it impolite, or even rude, to point out the shortcomings in another’s work, or even to identify them--that’s an ad hominum attack. Reticence to identify fraudulent research probably is polite, but it also shields dishonesty and leaves the public believing falsehoods.

In addition to dishonesty, meta-analysis will not uncover the other major source of poor quality in education research–censorship. As with dishonesty, meta-analysis is more likely to exacerbate censorship’s deleterious effect than to solve it. Meta-analysis assumes not only that all the research “out there” in the journals is sincere, but that it is a representative sample of all the honest research that can be done on a topic. Meta-analysis, more or less, assumes that its drift net will pull in something akin to a complete universe of the relevant research or a representative sample of it.

In other disciplines of inquiry, where researchers are truly independent and have no vested interest in the outcomes of their research, those assumptions may hold. In education, where few researchers are independent and most have a vested interest in the outcomes of their research, these assumptions do not hold. Assume that the research literature on any given education topic is valid and representative, and the meta-analytic conclusions are likely to be just as sympathetic to vested interest doctrine as most education journals are.

Many, if not most, education journals prefer studies that reach certain conclusions; anyone who truly believes all of them to be neutral and objective is being fairly naive.

Research pecking order
In addition to the aforementioned reasons why fraudulent research is well tolerated in education, I would argue that there is probably one more. Uncovering fraudulent research requires some digging. The “devil is in the details” as they say. Digging in data is dirty, menial labor. Really, it is more like forensic accounting than it is like anything taught in social science PhD programs. Few education researchers, probably, would even know how to begin to approach the task.

Even fewer would think it worth their time in terms of career advancement. There is little professional glory to be gained by digging in someone else’s dirt. Glorious researchers make new discoveries and employ the newest wizbang methodological tools. Glorious researchers look ahead, advance the horizon of knowledge, and cut the edge with the most sophisticated laser slicers. They don’t look backwards and sift through others’ refuse with spades and hoes.

Indeed, the most glorious researchers may have no experience whatsoever with data collection or management, as that rather inglorious work is usually relegated to technicians and bureaucrats. Often, they simply assume that the data provided them by others must be valid and reliable. Many do not understand the data well enough to discern if they are not, or if they have been doctored.

Research glory is gained only by the final analysis, by making the data talk (even if what the data say is a fib).

What will “scientific rigor” applied to education research tell us?
I hope that I am wrong, and it wouldn’t be the first time. But, I conjecture that the Bush Administration initiatives will tell us little new in the end. To fight the devil, one must face him where he is. In education research, he lives mostly in the details. Meta-analysis may not find him. The most famous and prominent researchers may not find him either, unless they are willing to yank on their hip boots and wade in the murky morass of detail for some extended period of time. Probably, however, they would be neither famous nor prominent today if they had spent any substantial amount of career time in the patient, inglorious, and time-consuming task of sifting details for research fraud.

It is worth noting, however, that the most prominent and most highly-paid Wall Street analysts were fooled by the crooks who assembled the financial box scores for them at Enron, Global Crossing, Kmart, Qwest, Pharmor, and WorldCom. It was the less famous, less well-paid, fastidious, green-eye-shaded morlocks who discovered the frauds, after patiently sifting through the refuse.

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