More Time on Transparency

Political scientists debate standards adopted by leading publications.

November 16, 2015

Last fall, 27 political science journal editors signed on to a new Data Access and Research Transparency Guidelines (DA-RT) statement promoting openness in academic research. The guidelines would require authors to make available much more of the raw data and methodologies used to analyze that data than would typically appear in many journal articles. And the past year has seen various research scandals and other news that arguably bolster the case for increased transparency in the social sciences. But now, just two months before the new openness guidelines are supposed to take effect, more than 1,000 political scientists are expressing serious doubts about them.

“We write as concerned members of the American Political Science Association to urge an important amendment to the statement ‘Data Access and Research Transparency (DA-RT): A Joint Statement by Political Science Journal Editors,’” reads a circulating petition signed by about 1,200 scholars as of Friday. Among them are 10 former presidents of the political science association.

The petition continues, “Conversations at the panels, roundtables, section business meetings and other venues at the recent annual meeting demonstrated that members of the association have only just begun to grapple with the implications of DA-RT.”

Asking the journal editors to delay the new guidelines until further discussions can be had, including at the political science association’s next annual meeting, signatories outline some of their specific concerns. At issue, for example, is how much analytic explicitness can be expected regarding the field’s vast number of qualitative approaches. Costs are also a concern. For data sets that aren’t machine readable, who will render -- or at least who will pay for someone to render -- raw data in digital form for archiving? How should scholars balance access to data with ethical concerns related to human subjects and, perhaps most importantly, should questions of access and transparency really be up to journal editors, not researchers themselves?

“Since these issues are still very much under discussion,” the petition reads, “it is supremely important not to begin to enforce any particular policies until the relevant research communities have been able to discuss the issues fully and either come to consensus or clarify the issues on which their members disagree.”

The guidelines in question, set to kick in on Jan. 15, are aimed at increasing access to data and research transparency by promoting policies that require authors to share as much as possible about the empirical foundation and logic of their work. DA-RT began informally in 2010 as an ad hoc committee of the political science association. That work resulted in 2012 to formal changes to the association’s Guide to Professional Ethics in Political Science, and more than two dozen top journal editors have since agreed to incorporate those changes into their publication standards.

Among other requirements, the new journal guidelines ask authors to ensure that cited data are available at the time of publication through a trusted digital repository, with possible exceptions for privacy-restricted data. Authors also must outline analytic procedures relevant to their claims, and where possible provide access to analytic materials. Journals must maintain a consistent data citation policy to increase credit that contributors receive for their work, and generally update their standards to increase data access and transparency.

Many supporters of increased transparency in academic research say that more information is simply better information, and that access to raw data can help replication efforts. A landmark study earlier this year, for example, suggested that fewer that half of psychology findings can be successfully replicated, and those involved said their work demonstrated the need for more open science. But there's a quality control issue here, too -- stamping out research misconduct. This year alone has seen several scandals in the social sciences, with perhaps the biggest being falsified data in a high-profile political science study on public perceptions of gay marriage.

Arthur Lupia, the Hal R. Varian Collegiate Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan, helped create the new standards for the political science association. Lupia said via email that there’s not single set of standards for journal editors beyond the guidelines included in the association’s ethics statement.

Instead, he said, “there is a commitment by 27 editors of leading political science journals to increase transparency by either more clearly articulating their current transparency-related guidelines or to develop such guidelines for new cases. The journal editors who have signed the statement are at various stages in developing their journals' policies.” Some editors have been making these changes over the past several years, and many consider the process ongoing, Lupia added.

Indeed, John W. Patty, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago and co-editor of the Journal of Theoretical Politics, said in a personal blog post that journal editors already have the “unilateral discretion” to impose the kinds of policies that are being promoted, and that they're starting to carry them out. “It's happening anyway, let's stay in front of it,” he wrote.

William Jacoby, a professor of political science at Michigan State University and editor of the American Journal of Political Science, responded to the petition in a memo to his journal's editorial board, which has since been made public. Jacoby wrote that the journal's “already has publicly demonstrated its commitment to data access and research transparency through our rigorous replication and verification policy.” Recent events in political science and other disciplines, he added, “demonstrate the utility and importance of opening up scientific research to broader scrutiny.”

Defending the new standards and the timeline for adopting them, Jacoby wrote that "oversight is vital for guaranteeing the quality of the work that guides the theory construction process and contributes to human knowledge. It also helps reassure those outside the immediate scientific community about the legitimacy and utility of our work.”

Jacoby said in an email to Inside Higher Ed that he doesn't believe the guidelines will be changed as a result of the petition, since there's “no reason to delay implementation of a set of principles that apply -- without any difficulty -- to much (and probably most) of the research that is carried out within the political science community while the discussion is taking place.”

The journal also has had one of the most -- if not the most -- rigorous data replication and verification policies among social science journals since March, Jacoby added, with 100 percent cooperation and “and often enthusiastic support.” The policy requires that all empirical work in the journal be reproducible, and applies to both quantitative and qualitative data. Requests for exceptions have been based on practical concerns, such as confidentiality issues or proprietary data, rather than epistemological ones, he said.

Nancy J. Hirschmann, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania and a former vice president of the political science association, supports a delay of the new standards. She said that transparency is a positive goal, and that she also appreciates the "dialogue that has been stimulated about how we do our research." But transparency "raises different kinds of concerns for scholars in different subfields," such as sharing data gathered through confidential interviews with human subjects, she said. "Often, it is not possible to mask those persons’ identities fully if data is posted, and that can have serious consequences for the subjects interviewed."
Hirschmann said she and others with similar concerns believe that journal editors, "when made fully aware of these complexities, will be able to incorporate such concerns into their policies, and many are already trying to do so." But it became apparent at this year's association meeting that many of the issues still need to be worked through, and two months is simply not enough time.


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