Check the Numbers: The Case for Due Diligence in Policy Formation

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Empirical research in academic journals is often cited as the basis for public policy decisions, in part because people think that the journals have checked the accuracy of the research. Yet such work is rarely subjected to independent checks for accuracy during the peer review process, and the data and computational methods are so seldom disclosed that post-publication verification is equally rare. This study argues that researchers and journals have allowed habits of secrecy to persist that severely inhibit independent replication. Non-disclosure of essential research materials may have deleterious scientific consequences, but our concern herein is something different: the possible negative effects on public policy formation. When a piece of academic research takes on a public role, such as becoming the basis for public policy decisions, practices that obstruct independent replication, such as refusal to disclose data, or the concealment of details about computational methods, prevent the proper functioning of the scientific process and can lead to poor public decision making. This study shows that such practices are surprisingly common, and that researchers, users of research, and the public need to consider ways to address the situation. We offer suggestions that journals, funding agencies, and policy makers can implement to improve the transparency of the publication process and enhance the replicability of the research that is published.

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