When research goes wrong: My top 10 list

With apologies to former late-night host David Letterman—and to Dr. Bohannon for inspiring this blog with this week’s presentation—here are the top 10 things that annoy me most about research methods and the people who misuse them.

  1. Conclusions by Captain Obvious

Ice cream tastes better after a win than a loss, according to Cornell University physiology professor Dando, who along with Noel studied the affect of emotion on taste on 550 hockey fans. “It’s a cliché and the headline writes itself, but what we found is that victory really does taste sweet,” Dando told Smithsonian magazine. I hope tax dollars weren’t involved to learn that human eat more when they’re stressed, prefer chocolate after a win, and pass on lemon sorbet after a loss.

According to HowStuffWorks.com, other completely obvious research conclusions include:

  1. Results that lack relevance in the real world

Occasionally, researchers and academic scholars offer insights and bring forth conclusions that make me scratch my head and ponder, So what? Panda and Gupta (2014) cited several previous studies when noting that some academic research lacks real-world applications and that management tends to prefer consultants who simplify business problems over academics who seem to be “out of touch”. To help solve translation gaps between academic studies and business practices in India, Panda and Gupta suggest that scholars:

  • Collaborate with business people and share ideas
  • Use action-oriented and mixed approaches instead of qualitative research methods
  • Consult with practitioners to help solve business problems
  • Receive funds for specific research and travel expenses
  1. Massive chunks of grey text

Research = communication. The objective of any research study is to contribute to the body of knowledge and inform others about the topic. That goal falls short when it takes nearly as much effort to plod through a research paper that resembles massive chunk of Easter Island-like grey blocks of text. These same texts often use a lofty tone that extends beyond scholarly into intellectual condescension.

  1. Lack of sensitivity to marginalized communities

One of the best-known and worst unethical research studies was the U.S. Public Health’s Tuskegee syphilis experiment from 1932 to 1972. Researchers told unsuspecting 600 men of African descent in a low income base they were receiving free medical care from the government, which in fact was studying the untreated progression of the disease. Several men died without receiving known penicillin treatments, and dozens of wives and children contracted the disease. This study caused legislative changes and major research study reforms. It is not acceptable to cause harm to any human research test subjects without their informed knowledge and consent.


  1. Mixed messages with mixed methods

I think most of us want to learn how research studies and conclusions apply to our lives. That’s especially applicable to medical studies. When we hear The New England Journal of Medicine reported today…we tend to pay attention to research conclusions that can use to improve our lives. However, blogger Mosher explained how a medical study got misinterpreted by The New York Times, and how glossing over complex medical terminology leads to confusion, misdiagnosis and potentially incorrect treatments. Truly, as Mosher notes, the devil is in the details, and that includes how we communicate them to others.

  1. Hidden agendas and buried biases

Can you think of any examples when researchers set out to provide a theory or prove point they want to promote? Do you read the newspaper or online news sources? J According to Explorable.com blogger Shuttleworth, qualitative research is more vulnerable to bias when explaining experiment results become excessively judgmental interpretations. Media bias regularly appears in social media trends. Scholarly researchers disclosure their personal circumstances, experiences, credentials, and funding sources to help eliminate reporting bias. Financial reporters must disclose if they own shares of securities on which they provide public comments. I wonder how we all would consume news if television, radio, print and digital news reporters were held to the same standard.

  1. Confusing algebraic formulas for social research

Reading the methods section of some research papers takes me back to my harrowing days as a struggling math student who gave up understanding of letters used in algebra formulas. Researchers often use qualitative methods to quantify and support social, psychological, and human behavioral theses with complex algebraic formulas that just plain make my head hurt.

  1. Students aren’t like everyone else

In my limited exposure to research methods as well as other classes, I’ve read several papers in which professors applied broad overgeneralizations about human behavior based on a limited sampling of survey responses by college students. Although they’re smart and learning more, undergrad and graduate students do not reflect the opinions, values, and insights of the general population with more diverse life circumstances. Although I appreciate the time and effort it takes to design a questionnaire and study certain topics, I’d encourage professors to more beyond their campuses to gauge responses from a broader spectrum of the population beyond students.

  1. Wastes of money (especially tax dollars)

According to Creswell, research topics should be practical and useful (p. 25); I suggest that message be reiterated to the University of Iowa scholars who spent more than $500,000 of tax dollars to study the sex habits of mud snails, according to NaturalNews.com. The Motley Fool chided researchers at San Diego State University and the University of California for spending part of a $325,000 government agency grant to make a robot squirrel. I’m certain I could write an entire these on how researchers waste government tax dollars, but the process would likely require blood pressure medication.

  1. Liars

Emails from the EPA analyzed by Breibart.com show that Harvard and Syracuse University researchers and two of their affiliates who previously received more than $45 million in EPA grants lied when they said their study about global warming was conducted independent of the government environmental regulator. Although the study claimed that an EPA proposal to change climate rules would “save thousands of lives”, Beibart writer Malloy called out the researchers’ biases because their research bias aligned with the government agency’s intent. But why? Perhaps they didn’t think they would get caught, like Haruko Obokata, who published a ground-breaking stem cell experience and shortly shamed into apologizing for sloppy work and misstatements, according to The Guardian. Scientists face enormous pressure to publish new work, discover new things, and significantly contribute to the global body of knowledge (while hoping no one replicates their methods). Perhaps Obokata’s mistakes were discovered because they involved controversial stem-cell research. Nevertheless, integrity should always take precedence over pressure, hubris, and professional ethics.

–Kris Spadaccia

(These opinions reflect only those of the author.)

This entry was posted in obvious research conclusions, research about marginalized communities, research that lacks relevance, research that wastes tax dollars and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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