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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. 

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