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field, and impedes progress on phenomena that are replicable and important.

Problem 1: Exploration Instead of Confirmation

In his well-known book chapters on writing an empirical journal article, Bem (2000, 2003) rightly calls attention to the fact that psychologists do not often engage in purely confirmatory studies. That is,

“The conventional view of the research process is that we first derive a set of hypotheses from a theory, design and conduct a study to test these hypotheses, analyze the data to see if they were confirmed or disconfirmed, and then chronicle this sequence of events in the journal article. (...) But this is not how our enterprise actually proceeds. Psychology is more exciting than that (...)” (Bem, 2000, p. 4).

How is it then that psychologists analyze their data? Bem notes that senior psychologists often leave the data collection to their students, and makes the following recommendation:

“To compensate for this remoteness from our participants, let us at least become intimately familiar with the record of their behavior: the data. Examine them from every angle. Analyze the sexes separately. Make up new composite indexes. If a datum suggests a new hypothesis, try to find further evidence for it elsewhere in the data. If you see dim traces of interesting patterns, try to reorganize the data to bring them into bolder relief. If there are participants you don’t like, or trials, observers, or interviewers who gave you anomalous results, place them aside temporarily and see if any coherent patterns emerge. Go on a fishing expedition for something–anything–interesting.” (Bem, 2000, pp. 4-5)

We agree with Bem in the sense that empirical research can benefit greatly from a careful exploration of the data; dry adherence to confirmatory studies stymies creativity and the development of new ideas. As such, there is nothing wrong with fishing expeditions. But it is vital to indicate clearly and unambiguously which results are obtained by fishing expeditions and which results are obtained by conventional confirmatory procedures. In particular, when results from fishing expeditions are analyzed and presented as if they had been obtained in a confirmatory fashion, the researcher is hiding the fact that the same data were used twice: first to discover a new hypothesis, and then to test that hypothesis. If the researcher fails to state that the data have been so used, this practice is at odds with the basic ideas that underlie scientific methodology (see Kerr, 1998, for a detailed discussion).

Instead of presenting exploratory findings as confirmatory, one should ideally use a two-step procedure: first, in the absence of strong theory, one can explore the data until one discovers an interesting new hypothesis. But this phase of exploration and discovery needs to be followed by a second phase, one in which the new hypothesis is tested against new data in a confirmatory fashion. This is particularly important if one wants to convince a skeptical audience of a controversial claim: after all, confirmatory studies are much more compelling than exploratory studies. Hence, explorative elements in the research program should be explicitly mentioned, and statistical results should be adjusted accordingly. In practice, this means that statistical tests should be corrected to be more conservative.

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