Category Archives: Archived

Full disclosure: I’m deeply conflicted

On the way to being an scientific rockstar
We talked about how not only is the truth hard to get at (or even knowable), but also how sometimes evidence doesn’t even see the light of day.  There are a lot of reasons for this, as always, but one of the reasons is conflict of interest.  And in that light, I’m going to talk about my own conflicts as a case example.
(1)  I get support from the US government for my research, education and training. 
Yes, boys and girls, your taxpayer dollars go to support me and many other types of researchers who try to make a difference in science/knowledge/medicine/health through our research.  Some of us see this as a big deal—we owe it to everyone to make good on the investment.  I’m not so sure everyone sees it that way.  But because of this commitment, those of us who are funded by the National Institutes of Health are required to make papers that are accepted for publicationavailable to the public.  That doesn’t mean all of our work gets published, only that work that makes it through the peer-review process and gets accepted for publication.  Which is a very small percentage, unless you’re a rockstar with a great publication history.  The good news is that if we don’t publish, we perish—meaning we don’t get that financial support.  This could mean that our work is not worth publishing, or that there’s a big problem with publication bias (read #4 for more info).
(2)  My name is Michelle, and I’m an addict.
It’s been four months since I’ve played World of Warcraft.  When I left (this time) I had leveled up my mage to the maximum level, earned my expanded farm and house, and was thinking about gearing up.  I was only playing for a couple of hours a day, not like Lich King, when raiding a few days a week meant a 20-hour commitment.  Since June I have not entered the game, although I’ve thought about it a lot, especially when I’m especially down or bored.
I miss my WoW friends, and when they talk about the game on Facebook I want to get back in.  But I’m worried that one session will lead to more, and you know, with my problems with self-control it might get out of hand again.  On the other hand, I firmly believe that playing MMOs can be really helpful for people who have problems with social skills/getting along, which is why I’m studying problematic gaming to figure out how people can use games without it causing severe life problems.
(3)  I’m also a consumer/service user (in other words, have had severe enough life problems that I’ve had a good amount of mental health treatment).
Some of you already know that, probably.  It’s no big deal to me except that it helps me see things differently and focus on how to use what I see to advocate for changes.  I’ve been actively involved in mental health advocacy for years.   I believe in telling it like it is and I don’t like flitting around talking about how things need to change—I just work to change them.
(4)  I strongly believe that games can be useful, but that sometimes people have problems controlling their use.
This means I have an intellectual conflict of interest (the link is an ironic story about the FDA’s take on financial vs. intellectual conflicts).  My own bias is the above belief, and as a result, I’m more likely to interpret research findings as supporting this belief.  When this happens with other people, they may be more likely to selectively report outcomes or put something in the file drawer.  Wikipedia has a great article about publication biasthat explains more.
Here’s the problem:  if scientists publish their work before it is peer-reviewed, we are sharing info before potentially good reviewers have the opportunity to call bullshit on our findings, which is considered poor scientific practice.  If we don’t share, though, the results may not get published for a variety of reasons (i.e., publication bias).  We might have more success with open-access journals, especially ones that are committed to publishing negative results, but they may not be the best answer.
My approach is going to be looking for avenues to publish my proposed work with proposed hypotheses, so it’s out there in public what I’m going to do, how I’m going to do it, and how I’m going to check to see what the results are.  That way there’s no futzing around with “Oh, I didn’t get the result I want so…no need to publish or report this.”  That way y’all can keep me honest.


For more information about publication bias and selective outcome reporting and how they are failing scientific advancement, read this excellent yet depressing article by Jonah Lehrer:  The truth wears off.