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Staging an angry winner-take-all debate was, for many years, seen as the only way to settle a protracted academic dispute.

But a project that has asked social scientists to work together when they disagree suggests that collaboration is a far better approach for resolving scholarly differences because it produces far more reliable results than work undertaken with like-minded colleagues.

The success of the Adversarial Collaboration Project at the University of Pennsylvania, which has brought together dozens of academics with conflicting ideological or theoretical views over the past few years, could even see its unusual approach become the norm for academia when bad blood arises between scholars, argued the project’s director, Cory Clark.

“When two scholars have a brawl and cannot reconcile their differences properly, the academic community should expect them to work together,” Clark told Times Higher Education.

The approach has been particularly effective in political science, where scholarly arguments have broken out over accusations of liberal bias among researchers or claims that scholars cherry-picked questions, research methods or interviewees that would deliver results that they wanted to see, Clark explained. In one study exploring whether political conservatives are more closed-minded than liberals, the coupling of a more conservative researcher with more liberal academics led to a radical review of research design, including questions, indicators and scales used, she said.

“The team realized the scales normally used had been designed to make conservatives look more authoritarian, so they looked at the 50 tests available and discarded all but one of them,” said Clark.

“It also eliminates practices where people will run 120 analyses and report the results of only a fraction of them—those that support their hypothesis.

“If you’re designing a study and you decide to set it up to produce certain results, a moderating voice will say, ‘No—that’s not going to fly.’”

The additional rigor of the adversarial collaboration approach, which was championed by the Princeton University psychologist Daniel Kahneman, might even help to solve the replication crisis in social sciences, which has cast doubt over the findings of some of the world’s most famous psychology and economics studies, said Clark, whose team has facilitated about 15 collaborations in the past few years on topics including “Is psychological science politically biased?” and “Does implicit racial bias predict racial discrimination?”

“In some ways, adversarial collaboration is annoying—it takes time, and it’s harder to find the flashy results that will grab headlines. But, like open science, it should become the norm, and researchers should be expected to participate if they’re challenged on their findings,” she said.

While social scientists did not usually seek out ideological opponents for adversarial collaborations, many responded enthusiastically when approached by the project to participate, said Clark.

“Most people are convinced that we should be doing this, even if the incentive system within academia doesn’t encourage them to do so,” she said.

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