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Preregistration can bring science back to its roots

This blog is part of our series on the Future of Open Science. Read previous posts here

 

Open Access has provided us the opportunity—and the responsibility—to think about how scientific inquiry and discoveries are presented to a broader community. So how can we ensure credibility in research communication and assessment? One answer to that is preregistration.

Preregistration enables authors to deposit their hypothesis and study design or submit it for peer review at a journal before they begin conducting experiments. Why is that important? Earlier documentation and review can help address two persistent scientific problems: increasing the credibility of results and reducing the amount of time it takes to make scientific knowledge available. 

More Complete Results

Scientific discovery often begins with a question. Researchers then design a study that will test this hypothesis and ultimately inform the work of future researchers. But that work is not evaluated until the experiment is complete. Staging peer review at the end of research cycle puts a lot of focus on the results, and introduces the potential for bias.   

Whether it’s the publisher’s inclination to give surprising results more consideration, the reviewers’ tendency to give more credence to results that support their own views, or the author’s inclination to highlight positive results and leave out null or negative outcomes; focusing on results can leave a lot of excellent research and hard-earned knowledge on the cutting room floor. In so doing, we forget the aim of science is to investigate and ultimately add to our understanding of a subject—whether or not the outcome is what we expected.

By documenting this initial phase of research and opening it up to peer review, researchers get earlier feedback and the opportunity to collaboratively craft the best study design possible before conducting their experiments. By depositing or publishing this initial work, researchers are committing to follow a certain approach and ensuring that the final article—whatever the outcome may be—will be evaluated for its thoroughness and rigor. 

Less Time to Publish

Science is happening everyday, but we don’t have access to that knowledge until the work is complete. Scientific investigation is often under-way for years before researchers are able to write up their findings and submit a research article to a journal for peer review. That can take some time too. Between review, revision, and the possibility of submitting to multiple journals before your work finds the right home, it can take several additional months for that work to publish. 

Not only does earlier assessment through preregistration make sense for producing the best science, it can also reduce the amount of time from completion to publication. Authors who receive a provisional acceptance at a journal based on their hypothesis and approach won’t need to shop their final article around to multiple publishers in order to find the right fit for their work, streamlining the submission and publication process.

Increasing Trust in Science

Even if you’re not a scientist, preregistration has its benefits. As readers, policymakers, and professionals who rely on scientific research, preregistration provides an extra assurance of the credibility of the results. By counteracting implicit biases in the review process and encouraging authors and publishers to present more complete findings, we also get access to an unfiltered scientific record. 

Preregistration is still in its early days, but it’s something we’ve been thinking about a lot at PLOS, and you can expect to hear more updates from us soon. Until then, stay tuned for next month’s Open Science post where we look at how Open helps increase reproducibility. 

Discussion
  1. Whereas pre-registration has its virtues as listed but does it not expose it to be copied by others? There might be researchers and institutions who are smart and quick to produce results before the original proposer does.

  2. Glad you asked! Preregistration can help protect work from being “scooped” by competitors by allowing authors to stake a claim much earlier in the research process. At some journals, the study design and hypothesis can be peer-reviewed but doesn’t become public until the final article is completed. For authors who choose a journal that publishes this early piece of work immediately, the public report work is time-stamped and ultimately helps show the progression of their work. Whether published or not, preregistering at a journal and receiving provisional acceptance helps ensure the journal’s commitment to publish the final results, regardless of whether a competing study publishes first. Authors can also deposit their approach with OSF if they want to keep that work under embargo until they’re ready to share at publication.

  3. I like the idea . It saves a lot of time . Can you please list journals that offer per-registration review . Is PLOS ONE one of them?
    Thank you

  4. There are currently over 200 journals that will offer in-principle acceptance based on a reviewed pre-registration (which we refer to as Registered Reports here: cos.io/rr). Also, any researcher can preregister their work in order to make a clear distinction between planned and data-dependent analyses (cos.io/prereg). My favorite overview (sorry, I’m an author on it!) is the Preregistration Revolution: https://www.pnas.org/content/115/11/2600

  5. When I write a grant proposal, when is the right time to submit the Registered Report Protocol for this project? – For me as a researcher the best time would be before submitting the proposal (which would allow me to benefit from reviewer suggestions, show the grant reviewers the seriousness of my application, and might also protect me from grant reviewers copying ideas). But what happens then if the project is still not funded? Will the journals end up with many published protocols whose project was never completed due to lack of funding?

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