Academic researchers often see news headlines that are not supported by the actual findings of their original research and publications. It is time that researchers took matters into their own hands and started producing more exciting output themselves!
Researchers in psychology generally put a lot of effort into conducting their studies. They determine specific research questions or hypotheses, follow intricate experimental procedures, ensure ethical treatment of participants and carry out measurements with millisecond precision and state of the art brain scanners. Then, they examine the data in detail and consider only outcomes of thorough statistical analyses in order to substantiate their conclusions. Finally, they write a scientific paper for publication. In such papers it is customary to stay as close to the methods, data, and substantiated conclusions as possible. Moreover, these papers typically include honest self-criticism, such as suggestions for possible improvements of the methods used and alternative explanations for the results found. So far, so good.
Then, the paper may get noticed by the media, and all the gaps purposely left open by the researcher get filled in by reporters to make the findings clear and relevant for the general public. Now, if things work out well, and reporters understand what real-life consequences can reasonably be deduced from this particular study, these interpretations fall largely within the conclusions of the researcher.
However, if a researcher is confronted with exciting interpretations that are not fully warranted by the study outcomes, what to do? Dismiss the exciting news, or go along? Going along a little, because it serves your own research career? A little more, because it also serves the field as a whole? Way more? Yes, somewhere on this slippery slope some researchers seem to feel tempted to confirm or even produce what reporters may want to put in those headlines, as recent incidents in psychological research have demonstrated.
Rather ironically, leaving things as open as possible in a paper seems the correct thing to do at first, but in the end only seems a stronger invitation to others to fill in these gaps. Reporters are typically less familiar with the research and are bound to jump to conclusions, or derive interpretations that researchers are tempted to confirm. Now, is this a common practice we just need to accept as part of popularizing our research?
No, I say we should minimize this dependency on reporters to make our work look interesting!
Scientists need to take matters into their own hands, and should themselves produce exciting end products that are suitable for the general audience, such as short videos. Show the audience what your findings are and how to interpret them and relate them to daily life; yes, use the full palette of human behavior and demonstrate, no, emphasize your findings and conclusions.
One of the assignments in our third-year Cognitive Ergonomics course, focuses on demonstrating the research findings. In this practical assignment, students first thoroughly analyze interaction patterns between human users and machine interfaces and reflect on this. Then, they produce digital short films in which they themselves are the actors demonstrating their findings and implications. Here is an example of last year's productions.
Now, if this is what our third-year students can deliver in two weeks' time using their smartphones and basic movie editing tools, what would prominent researchers in the field be able to show?
So, who takes the first shot? I would love to see Daniel Kahneman show us slow and fast thinking, or see Naomi Ellemers demonstrate some serious queen bee behavior, and see Lorenza Colzato do drugs and show the effects of impairment of her cognitive control.
Researchers ready? Science, camera, action!