Psychonomic Society hosts discussion on the definition of working memory, #whatWM?

Check in with the Psychonomic Society’s featured digital content all week for a discussion of what working memory is. Starting from a forthcoming paper in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review by Nelson Cowan that describes the 9 (!) definitions of working memory prevalent in published literature, we are considering how it is that working memory can be described in so many distinct ways, whether this is a problem, and if so, how to deal with it. Full-text of Cowan’s paper is freely available, and there will be new reactions each day this week from Steve Lewandowsky, Klaus Oberauer, me, Judith Schweppe, and finally a reply from Nelson Cowan.

Measurement of visual memory is not always confounded by verbalization

If you study visual memory, you can bet that you will encounter skepticism about whether your participants really remembered visual images. Maybe they only remembered verbal labels corresponding to your stimuli. Certainly, there are many published studies of “visual” memory that merit skepticism on this point. Unlike studying verbal memory, where participants can convey what phonemes they are thinking of with high fidelity via speech, communication of visual memories must be mediated by speech or gesture. You cannot directly show someone else what the mental image you remember looks like. In visual memory research, it is often unclear whether we are measuring memory for what something looked like based on representation of a visual image or a representation of how we intend to communicate what something looked like, two completely different things. 

One method that minimizes these concerns is visual change detection. Visual change detection paradigms use arbitrary and unique arrangements of colored shapes as stimuli. Participants view the stimuli very briefly and indicate whether the test item has changed or not by pressing a button. This plausibly minimizes dependence on verbal labels for several reasons. Simply remembering all the color or shape names would not reliably lead to correct responses because it is also important to know where they were situated. Exposures are too brief for all the components (plus some spatial cue) to be named. Responses are not spoken, which should further discourage verbal labeling. And if you’re still wary of the possibility of verbal labeling, you can make participants engage in articulatory suppression, where they repeat some irrelevant and easy-to-remember sequence (e.g., “super, super, super”, “the, the, the”) during the task to further discourage verbalization. 

Imposing articulatory suppression is a pain for the researchers collecting data. Participants understandably do not like continuously speaking aloud, and researchers have to actually monitor them to ensure they comply. I’ve done my time in this respect. Most of the participants I ran for my MSc and PhD research engaged in articulatory suppression. I’ve spent hundred of hours listening to research participants chant arbitrary sequences. I’ve commiserated with them about how tiresome it is. Once, I excused a participant after he spontaneously switched to droning a novel sequence of curse words. (I wasn’t offended by the profanity, but I judged that this insubordination reflected a withdrawal of consent.) Sometimes I had a good reason, grounded in hypothesis testing, for imposing articulatory suppression. Usually though, I decided to impose suppression only on the chance that a peer reviewer might not be persuaded that I had really measured “visual” memory unless participants had been suppressing articulation. I know I’m not the only visual memory researcher who has made this decision.

My colleagues and I (led by Rijksuniversiteit Groningen PhD candidate Florian Sense) have recently shown that this precaution is unnecessary in a paper in Behavior Research Methods. We compared performance on a typical visual change detection task with performance on a modified task designed to increase the likelihood that participants would try to generate verbal labels. In the modified task, colored items were presented one-by-one so that participants could more easily verbalize them. Participants completed half the trials silently, which should allow opportunity for labeling, and half with articulatory suppression, which should discourage labeling. If labeling occurs and boosts memory for these stimuli, then we should have observed better performance with sequential presentation and no suppression. However, this wasn’t the case. Our state-trace analyses, designed to detect whether we were measuring one mnemonic process (presumably maintenance of visual imagery) or multiple mnemonic processes (maintenance of imagery plus maintenance of verbal labels) yielded consistent evidence across all participants favoring the simpler explanation that a single mnemonic process was measured in all conditions. 

I don’t doubt that there are circumstances where verbal labels influence memory for visual imagery, both for better and for worse. That is not in dispute. But just because there are instances where we know this happens doesn’t make it reasonable to claim that verbal labeling is always probable. When stimuli are unfamiliar and abstract, and exposures are brief, visual change detection paradigms appear to offer a pure measure of memory for visual imagery uncontaminated by verbal labeling. 

I, for one, welcome our statcheck overlords

My spell-checker is stupid. It recently wondered whether the URL for my website,, shouldn’t be “scaremongering”. It thinks proper names are mis-spelled words. This is one reason why we don’t let computers write our papers. It would also be pretty stupid of me not to let software help me catch the spelling mistakes that I’m unlikely to notice. In the same way, the statcheck package is a great tool. Unless there is something horribly awry, I’m unlikely to notice if a p-value doesn’t match an F-value for its degrees of freedom, even though this is the hook on which the interpretation of data regularly hangs, the fact that justifies discussion of some phenomenon in the first place. If we messed that up, we’d really like to know, whether we are author, reader, meta-analyzer, or peer-reviewer.

Now that statcheck is being pre-emptively deployed – Psychological Science has announced that they’re running it on submitted manuscripts, and the group behind statcheck has deployed it on thousands of papers – there’s a hum of panic. What if we’re wrong? Won’t this stigmatize great scientists for nothing worse than typos? It’s as though there are scientists out there who think they have never committed a mistake in print. I bet we all have. I know for a fact I have. Acknowledging that everyone makes errors should really take the stigma out of this criticism and let us let statcheck do what it is good for – help us be better.

Anxious reactions to mass deployment of statcheck have all supposed that exposing mistakes in our work will make us look like bad researchers. But if we believe we all mess up, then researchers’ reactions to criticism are what tells us whether they are careless or conscientious researchers. If you think that your work is important at all, if you think that your data and analyses are leading up to some truth, then surely it matters whether the details you report are correct or not. Surely you would want to make it as easy as possible for readers to assess your work. The conscientious scientist who enables and invites criticism will eventually be caught in error, but then that error will be corrected, and the work will be better than it was. If no one has ever detected in error in your work, is it because there aren’t any, or because you’ve made it impossible for anyone to find them?

Researchers who are taking care of quality control deserve our respect. Mere days after we announced the winners of the Journal of Cognitive Psychology’s 2015 Best Paper Award, the corresponding author Vanessa Loaiza emailed me to say that she had recently been re-analyzing the data, and had uncovered a smattering of coding errors that occurred as they transferred scores from pencil-and-paper forms into digital data frames. The authors wanted to issue an erratum correcting the record, even though these mistakes did not change the inferential outcomes. Abashed, the team of authors also felt they may no longer be worthy of the award because they had acknowledged that they made a mistake. It would be ridiculous if we thought more of a hypothetical research team who had never re-examined their data, discovered and corrected their mistakes, or a research team who discovered them but decided not to rectify them, than one who acted and responded as Loaiza and colleagues did. I’m proud that the Journal of Cognitive Psychology honored a group that is so honestly committed to high quality research.

I was troubled that these authors felt like acknowledging a mistake should somehow lead us to discount the quality of their work, even though I know the feeling personally. A few years ago, I issued an erratum to correct errors that occurred when I carelessly copy-pasted code from one analysis to another. These errors were discovered by a colleague after I shared data and analysis scripts with him. I can feel my face flush just recalling how embarrassing this was. If I were unwilling to make my code available, no one, maybe not even me, would have ever have known about this blunder, and I would never have felt this acute embarrassment. But though the errors didn’t affect the inferences we reported, they affected the values in a way that puzzled my colleague. Would it really have been better for my reputation to have a colleague quietly wondering what could be wrong with my analysis rather than knowing for certain that I made a dumb but benign editing mistake, and then corrected it? I think the long-term consequences for my reputation would have been worse had I not made the data and code available for inspection. I just would not have been aware that respected colleagues were suspicious of the quality my work.

Nuijten and colleagues’ work suggests that reporting errors are more prevalent than we imagined. Statcheck only helps us find reporting errors occurring at the final step of the data processing and analysis workflow. Undoubtedly we are making even more errors than they have revealed. We should be worried when we encounter a colleague who isn’t worried about quality control, not when we hear that a colleague is correcting mistakes. We should embrace tools like statcheck, but go even further to ensure quality by also welcoming criticism of the interim steps leading to our reported analyses.

Mnemonic strategies: flexibly deployed to serve memory and to preserve the theoretical status quo

Every year, a small group of working memory researchers meets in the idyllic Yorkshire Dales for a laid-back and friendly discussion meeting for working memory geeks: we show each other works-in-progress meant to generate new ideas for research, we go for a lovely hill-walk, and we cap off each day with a mid-summer evening stroll to the local pub. Though established and sustained by the core group of researchers advocating the famous multi-component model of working memory, others (even skeptics like me) are welcomed. I saw results that challenged my point of view, and maybe others with different points of view feel the same way. However, I left with the uncomfortable impression that one class of post-hoc explanation, the use of unanticipated mnemonic strategies, will always pop up and save the standard working memory story from useful criticism, criticism that might ultimately help make the explanation better.

After nearly every presentation at the WMDM2016, discussion centered on mnemonic strategies. How did participants approach the task? Was it possible that participants encoded visual images verbally and then serially rehearsed them? Perhaps they remembered verbal items by weaving a story out of them, or imagining them as pictures? In some sense, this is good methodology. Researchers should be mindful of the fact that human participants might find multiple ways to accomplish any task. This sort of analysis should happen, hopefully before much effort is spent in data collection, so that researchers have a sound understanding early on of the responses their research design affords. This is why so many researchers actually participate in their own studies during the piloting phases, and why we ask students of psychology to participate as subjects in an extensive variety of research studies before they design their own. However, post-hoc musing about flexible strategy use presents a big problem for advancing theory. It can prevent us from considering whether a theoretical idea needs modification. This has happened, and we need to be careful not to make a habit of it.

One vivid example comes from Shah and Miyake (1996). Shah and Miyake tested participants’ working memory spans in complex span tasks. Complex span tasks measure working memory span while forcing the participant to simultaneously perform an extra task: you are given some stimulus which you must make a decision about (such as whether a sentence makes sense or not, or whether a rotated letter is mirrored or not), then given a stimulus to remember, then given another stimulus to judge, then another to remember, and so on. The decision task keeps you occupied so that you cannot think much about the memory items until it is time to recall them. In their version, Shah and Miyake elegantly manipulated whether the memory items were verbal or spatial and also whether the extra decision task involved a verbal or spatial judgment. These manipulations were designed to test whether we needed to believe that verbal and spatial information is processed by distinct systems. If there are distinct systems, then verbal memory span should not be affected much by making spatial reasoning decisions, and likewise spatial memory span should not be affected much by making decisions about verbal stimuli.

Even with such a clear experimental design, the results were not quite in line with predictions. Verbal memory spans were clearly affected more by processing verbal stimuli than making spatial judgments. However, the evidence from spatial memory spans was puzzling: for some sequence lengths, it looked like spatial memory spans were lower when interrupted by the spatial task, but usually spatial memory spans looked equally bad regardless of which secondary task was used. Shah and Miyake (1996) explained this by invoking strategy use: possibly, participants tried to encode the spatial locations in words, making these representations susceptible to interference from the verbal decision task.

This is a perfectly plausible explanation for the observed results. But if true, it means that Shah and Miyake (1996) didn’t actually measure spatial memory very well, and perhaps they should not have drawn conclusions about it as though they had. If their strategic explanation were truly correct, rather than learning that verbal memories only get worse when paired with verbal tasks and spatial memories only get worse when paired with spatial tasks, they learned that verbal memories get worse when paired with verbal tasks and that spatial memories aren’t really spatial at all, or at least, they weren’t in this study for some of their participants. Appealing to strategy use should have led to the collection of new data in which the problem was rectified and spatial memory measured more convincingly. Instead, strategy use was invoked to avoid considering whether this complex pattern of results might actually mean that a different way of explaining working memory is needed.

The tenor of conversations about mnemonic strategies at WMDM2016 similarly seemed like attempts to avoid hard questions about cherished beliefs, not just constructive comments meant to improve measures of working memory. At some point, we need broad acknowledgement that post-hoc rationalizations about strategy use are not always merited and shouldn’t be uncritically given a lot of evidentiary weight.

Authorship for sharing data? Social responsibility and power in science

Candice C. Morey and Richard D. Morey

Science is a social activity. It does not happen in a single-lab vacuum; rather, science happens across global networks of groups investigating similar topics. Our research is influenced by previous research and also by the work that I know other researchers in my network are currently pursuing. Our research benefits greatly from the generosity of my colleagues, most of whom are eager to explain their work, share published data upon request, and share experimental software and materials. We, likewise, participate in the same activities. Sharing software, analysis code, and data saves a tremendous amount of time: it prevents labs from continuously reinventing the same tasks and analyses, or from repeating ideas that do not work as envisioned. Sharing data also ensures that others can check and extend my analysis, instead of having to take us at our word about what the data “say”.

Note that we didn’t use the word “reciprocate” or anything like it in describing these relationships. That’s because these networks are not formed because of any quid pro quo established between our team and people who have cooperated with us previously. They arise because of the responsibility we all take on when publishing about our data. In reply to a query about whether the original authors of a data set should be given co-authorship on a new paper using their data:

Our papers are for describing our research as clearly as possible. That job doesn’t end when the paper is published and its reference is enshrined in the corresponding author’s CV. With authorship, we accept an obligation to promote and defend that research forever. That’s why in their tract “On Being a Scientist”, the National Academy of Sciences said that keeping clear data records is a fundamental scientific obligation, and that

“…when a scientific paper or book is published, other researchers must have access to the data and research materials needed to support the conclusions stated in the publication if they are to

verify and build on that research…Given the expectation that data will be accessible, researchers who refuse to share the evidentiary basis behind their conclusions, or the materials needed to replicate published experiments, fail to maintain the standards of science. (p. 11)

Obligations to the data sharer

Suppose you use publicly shared data in your own, novel work. What are your obligations to the original corresponding author? Is citation a sufficient acknowledge of their contribution, or should co-authorship be offered?

Surprisingly to us, many commenters (see discussions on Facebook and Twitter) feel that original authors should become co-authors on any subsequent paper in which their data were used, in acknowledgement of the work performed in collecting the original data. After all, that work was instrumental to the new work, in some cases even irreplaceable.





While we can see the superficial appeal of such arguments, we think they quickly collapse with scrutiny. Science is always an iterative endeavor. All of our research depends on crucial observations made before our own, and yet we do not routinely acknowledge with co-authorships all the previous work on which our work was founded.

Perhaps data re-use is a special case that should differ from re-use of previous theoretical or methodological ideas? One argument is that data sharing can require additional work (e.g., explaining the columns of a data set, etc) that are not entailed in other cases of building on previous research. However, as the quote from “On Being a Scientist” above makes clear, clearly explaining the results of one’s research is an obligation of publishing. The extra work was implicitly agreed to when the paper was submitted for publication.
The second argument against data re-use being a special case demanding coauthorship is that offering coauthorship is not, by any means, standard practice. Meta-analysis is the re-use of published data in novel secondary analyses, and yet common practice is simply to cite the data included in the meta-analysis, not to promote the original authors to co-authors on meta-analytic papers. This holds regardless of whether the meta-analytic data were found in archived papers or gathered via soliciting the data from the corresponding authors.

Is there any harm in allowing the original author of a data set you want to re-use as a co-author on a new paper? Some commenters imagine that this is a “win-win” scenario that costs neither the original author nor the new author anything.


We think this is mistake for several reasons. First, we doubt that it is healthy to view publication or authorship as a “win”. Second, as Chris Chambers pointed out, the pressure to add a corresponding author as your co-author as a condition of receiving the data at all creates a perverse incentive that rewards bad citizenship.



We should be using policy to promote adherence to scientific norms and good citizenship, such as the transparency that comes with unconditional release of one’s data and analysis.

With great responsibility comes great power

Finally, we should keep in mind that authorship is not a mere reward; authorship comes with responsibilities. All authors on a paper share responsibility for the content of a paper. A full consideration of these these responsibilities provides strong reasons why it should not be standard practice for original authors to be included as coauthors on papers using their data.

  • Lead authors have a responsibility to ensure that all coauthors consent to the papers’ submission. This is a bedrock ethical principle in scientific publishing; failure to obtain consent of all authors could lead to retraction. This responsibility means that original authors, if included on every subsequent paper about the data set, have veto power over any interpretation or critique of the data set. Such limitations on the freedom of the authors using the data set should be unacceptable to both the original authors and the authors using the data set.
  • Coauthors have a responsibility to ensure the integrity of the derivative work.  As co-author, the original author is also responsible for ensuring that the novel work is sound regardless of whether they have sufficient expertise to judge it. It would be awkward for the original author to be forced to accept co-authorship on an analysis that s/he is not sure is adequate.

For these reasons, we think that co-authorship is certainly not a “win-win”, but a dangerous proposition for both the new authors and the generators of the original data.


Interpreting nulls, even surprising ones, is not trivial

Sometimes I design an experiment really wondering what will happen, but that wasn’t the case when I first decided to compare proactive interference effects for verbal and visual memoranda. Proactive interference occurs when some information you have previously memorized disrupts your ability to learn new information. For example, having studied Spanish in high school could impair learning Italian vocabulary now: as you try to retrieve the now-relevant Italian word, you risk retrieving the previously-learned Spanish word instead. Learning new information also conflicts with remembering older information (that’s retroactive interference). Proactive interference is particularly interesting for me though because it helps address what happens to briefly presented and retained information like the arbitrary word lists or color patterns we ask participants to try to remember in short-term memory tasks: you can only observe proactive interference if the earlier stimuli remain in mind. If new stimuli overwrite these arbitrary lists or patterns, as is expected in many short-term memory models, then proactive interference wouldn’t occur. Testing whether proactive interference occurs for both verbal and visual memoranda seemed like an important way to assess whether parallel short-term memory systems operate for both kind of material.

I had recently conducted a series of studies including a verbal recognition memory task designed to be analogous to visual recognition memory tasks, and I realized that it would be great to use these materials to estimate the size of proactive interference for verbal and visual information. There were two possible outcomes, each of which would be interesting: 1) proactive interference would be observed for verbal, but not visual memoranda or 2) proactive interference would be observed for both kinds of materials. We designed a release-from-proactive-interference experiment. Participants observed a string of trials in which stimuli were drawn from the same set of similar materials. In the verbal task, this was a closed set of phonologically similar words (for instance, words that were close phonological neighbors to the word “cat”) and in the visual task, it was a closed set of similar colors (e.g., varying from blue to yellow). After drawing stimuli from this same set several times, we switched to a different set constructed in the same way. For verbal stimuli, this was phonological neighbors of “men” and for visual stimuli, it was colors varying between blue and red. If we hold lingering memories of the early trials that interfere with our ability to remember precisely which sequence of words that sound like cat we heard most recently, then performance should grow worse and worse as we keep drawing from the “cat” set. Then, when we switch to the “men” set, performance should spike because the fading memories of cat-like combinations cannot be confused for these novel men-like combinations. Lots of previous literature predicts that this pattern would be observed for verbal memoranda, and our study would establish whether something similar or different occurs with comparably constructed visual memoranda.

Only we didn’t find much release from proactive interference with verbal memoranda. The graph below give estimates of verbal task capacity averaged across 18-trial blocks. The switch to a new stimulus set occurred on trial 13. In our first experiment, we did observe performance in the right direction: on average, performance got worse from Trial 1 to Trial 12, and then got a little better again after trial 12. But not by much at all.


This picture of proactive interference accumulation and release with verbal memoranda, though detectable in our modeling, didn’t provide a compelling comparison for the utterly null effects we found with visual memoranda:


These figures came from our first attempt. Though the evidence for proactive interference in the verbal task was underwhelming, at first we believed that we had a small but legitimate effect that was simply being masked by something trivial about our task or design, and with tweaking, we could make it emerge more strongly. At this point, I’ve conducted several follow-ups, and it never gets clearer. Sometimes we find no release of proactive interference with verbal stimuli, sometimes we find a very small effect. We don’t see it when participants have to reconstruct the stimuli rather than recognize them (at least, not yet). We don’t see it for verbal materials that are recalled via speech (at least, not yet). We never see it with visual memoranda, but that finding is difficult to interpret without the clear, expected verbal effect as a foil. A summary of the results of our series of studies on this, along with the data, analysis scripts, and experimental paradigms is available on OSF. This summary document outlines what we’ve done so far.


I’m happy to #BringOutYerNulls and let anyone examine our progress with this; in fact, these results have been available on OSF for quite a while and I’ve discussed them with a few colleagues. But interpreting a null effect, even in light of the strong expectation that an effect should have occurred, isn’t easy. There are many reasons why this might not have worked, and many of them are really boring. Possibly, these null results are really important: maybe there are boundary conditions on proactive interference that limit its generality, and if we firmly established these conditions we would know something novel and fundamental about memory.

Eye movements as retrieval cues?

I’ll be speaking on Friday in the International Colloquia Series at the School of Psychology at Cardiff University on my newest line of research: figuring out whether eye movements cue memory retrieval. Eye movements have been proposed as a possible analog to speech-based verbal rehearsal, potentially useful for retrieving ordered spatial locations. My data support the idea that eye movements cue retrieval, but calling this process rehearsal is dubious. My talk is at 2:10 pm, LT3.

Title: Tracking maintenance of visual memories using eye movements

Abstract: Though rehearsal of verbal information has been extensively studied and described, the processes available to support memory for visual information remain mysterious. Motor activities, particularly eye movements, have been suggested as a basis for rehearsing visual-spatial memories, analogous to articulatory support for maintaining verbal information. Eye movements toward locations previously occupied by stimuli may reflect covert attempts to retrieve information about those items. I present evidence linking fixations during retention intervals in memory tasks to response accuracy, which is consistent with the idea that eye movements may be used as a cue to recover visual-spatial information. The strength of these relationships varies depending on the sort of visual material maintained, and varies between young adults and children. I shall discuss implications of these relationships for models of working memory. Though eye movements and response accuracy are related, the evidence is not consistent with the proposition that eye movements serve as the basis for a specialized rehearsal module of visual-spatial memories.

Slides, in case you are joining the periscope of the talk, can be found here.

Pre-emptive open science is fairer open science

The Peer Reviewers Openness Initiative is a grass-roots campaign to empower reviewers to demand greater transparency in scientific research. Simply put, peer reviewers promptly request that authors “complete” their manuscript by making the data and research materials publicly accessible, or provide a justification for why they have not done so. I encourage you to read the PRO initiative, and if you support its aims, sign it.

One advantage of pushing for not just open science but pre-emptive open science is that making data and materials accessible at publication will better ensure that the same opportunities to benefit from knowledge are available to everyone. Most of us offer an available-upon-request policy for letting other researchers access our data. But this available-upon-request model is inadequate: it is inconvenient for both the author and the requester, and I argue that it is also one more opportunity for our motivations and limited resources to selectively disadvantage junior researchers.

When we haven’t preemptively prepared data and materials for sharing, these impromptu requests are inconvenient. It is tempting to find a reason why you cannot spend the time to locate and curate the materials right now: too busy this week, not sure where the data are, need to check it for anonymity, etc. There are plenty of plausible reasons for delay, and as the lag between the request and compliance increases, the chance that you forget the request increases. But the enthusiasm you feel for complying with a request for data likely varies depending on who requested it. Is it a rival? Is it an unknown student from a foreign country? Is it a potential peer reviewer? Is it a prominent colleague who is likely to have influence over whether your next grant application is funded or whether you are promoted? 

I bet some requests are far less likely to be forgotten than others, and compliance in certain cases is likely to be prompt and enthusiastic, not reluctant. These differences tend to place junior researchers who want data or materials to facilitate their own projects at a disadvantage. Anecdotally, I’ve requested data or experimental materials on many occasions, and I’ve sometimes directed my students to request data, naively thinking that this would give them a chance to experience a pleasant, productive interaction with another working scientist. My personal success rate in getting the requested materials is something like 50%. I estimate that I got at least some reply 90% of the time I attempted to get data or materials on request, even if the author declined to share. My students’ success rate, defined as getting any acknowledgment of their request, has been closer to 10%. Because students’ projects are usually time-sensitive, sluggish responses to requests (or waiting for weeks to get no reply at all) can make a huge difference in the amount and quality of work that student can produce.  

Complying with a request for data or materials may seem like a chore, but I think it is a mistake to assume there is nothing in it for you. Sharing data and materials increases your reputation among your colleagues. It is a display of confidence in your lab’s work. Availability of your published data or materials is likely to increase citations of your original work. In my experience, sharing or requesting data has occasionally resulted in collaborations which produced novel, jointly co-authored research. If our interest is to get important work done, helping a colleague by sharing materials and data should be rewarding for everyone because it reduces duplicated efforts in collecting data or programming experiments and analyses. These are benefits that should be available to all scientists, not just the ones we most hope to impress. 

I think sharing data and materials should be the norm, and currently it isn’t. In order for this to be convenient and fair, we need sharing to be done preemptively, not just on sporadic request. By joining the PRO initiative, you can help make this happen. You can also express your support for the PRO initiative by using one of our badges as your avatar on social media, or by placing a badge or banner on your website.


A visit from the Ghost of Research Past

A request for an old data set recently afforded me the opportunity, much like Ebenezer Scrooge, of revisiting my Past-Self when I was a brand-new post-graduate student, and allowing Past-Self and Future-Self to help me critique how my lab curates our data and materials in the present day. Both Past-Self and Future-Self are compelling agitators for a proactive approach to opening data, especially implementing a Data Partner scheme. 

Openness about our work is consistent with believing that the work is important and excellent. Being asked for access to your work is an acknowledgement that it is valuable, and sharing it is an expression of your confidence in its value. I’ve found openness to be rewarding, leading to additional citations, gracious acknowledgments, and sometimes new collaboration opportunities. 

However, requests for data or materials fluster us, arriving out-of-the-blue. It always seems necessary to perform fresh checks: Is the code understandable and functional? Data may need to be explained and possibly tidied: what do the column headings mean again? Could there be identifying details in any of the responses? I might spend hours performing these checks before complying with a request. 

Waiting until the request arrives to open up data and materials can be seen as a tacit judgment on the expected impact of the data. Why, if I believe the work I do is worthwhile, am I not preparing it for public consumption before I publish it? When did I start imagining that no one was likely to be interested in re-analyzing my data or using my experimental code?  

Recently I was asked for data from the first paper I ever published, part of my master’s research project, which were collected in autumn 2002 and published in 2004. Possibly, sharing data that has been untouched for more than 10 years is asking too much. It wouldn’t have been strange if I had lost it in institutional moves and computer crashes, or if it proved impossible to adequately document. But if found, going through these data would give me an opportunity to pay a visit to my Past-Self, recall what it was like to begin a research project for the first time, and maybe learn something from her.

One thing that struck me as I examined Past-Self’s data is that Past-Self organized it expecting that other people would be looking at it. Past-Self inserted comments explaining what numeric codes meant. Past-Self wrote summaries of the purpose of experiments, and Past-Self organized files into hierarchical directories with sub-folders for data files, analyses, and experimental stimuli. I think it would have surprised Past-Self that no one would ask to look at this information until 2015. Past-Self thought this work was important and documented it accordingly.

Though Past-Self began as a data-sharing idealist, she had minimal skills for curating data and materials. Some organization elements improved drastically in the later experiments in her project. Past-self learned it is better to make category codes self-explanatory (e.g., why assign “male” or “female” to arbitrary numeric codes instead of just entering the words?). Past-self developed sensible conventions for naming files. Past-self reduced redundancies in data recording. 

But though some practices improved, it also became clear that Past-Self abandoned the expectation that anyone apart from her and her supervisor would ever see these raw data and materials. As the project drew on, the helpful comments disappeared, and the summaries for subsequent experiments were unchanged from the earliest ones. The whole directory was organized around an 8-experiment master’s project, which eventually resulted in the publication of three experiments in two separate papers. Past-Self never re-organized these materials so that it would be immediately obvious how to locate the materials pertaining to each paper specifically.

Altogether I interrogated Past-Self for about 5 hours: we located the data sets requested, established through re-analysis that they did in fact include the same data that were published, saved them in an accessible non-proprietary format, documented what the data sets contained and how these variables were coded, and published the data and guidance on Open Science Framework. On the one hand, that isn’t terrible. My Future-Self, who checked in throughout this process, insists that 5 hours of work accomplished now is a sound investment. It enables a colleague on the other side of the planet to do a meaningful new analysis, from which we might all learn something novel. Furthermore, those data are now available to anyone else who might have other ideas for how our data can be useful. Future-Self insists that this will lead to glory. On the other hand, this 5 hours of work entirely replicated work that Past-Self did more than 10 years ago in her haphazard manner. If Past-Self had carried on carefully documenting her data, if she had considered that materials should be available in commonly accessible formats, and if she had updated her personal repository to reflect the published record, then these materials would have been ready for sharing upon request in minutes, not hours. Future-Self is anxious to know how I am going to prevent this waste of time. Past-Self wonders whether I can do more to help my trainees learn good habits.

What, if any, are the constraints to proactively curating lab work? Proactive curation is obviously desirable for Future-Self: it saves her time and effort and it increases the impact and utility of the work. It is arguably good for trainees and PIs alike. Because I work with many short-term trainees, I have handled most data curation myself, but this is a valuable skill that Past-Self needed to learn better, and that Future-Self wants delegated. The Data Partner scheme is ideal for this: my trainees can be paired with trainees from a colleague’s lab, and these two students will help each other curate data by seeing whether their partner’s work is clear, self-explanatory, and reproducible. They do this independently of me. When the data are shown to me, they have already been vetted by one other person, providing an additional chance to catch mistakes. My trainees get the practice that Past-Self lacked, and Future-Self will never wonder whether data and materials are ready to be shared.

Are you at Psychonomics 2015? Come to our talk, Open Science: Practical Guidance for Psychological Scientists, Friday at 10:40 am, in the Statistics and Methodology II session.

Update: Check out Lorne Campbell’s thoughts on this too.


Social rewards make it easier for women than men to lose ambition

I lately read this article about how women’s ambition declines more quickly than men’s, as well as this article about the advantages anyone with a spouse who takes the lead role at home has over the rest of us. Both offer a lot to discuss, but one point that I think is really important that isn’t explicitly mentioned in either place is that women are more likely then men to be socially rewarded, at least in the near-term, for offering to take on the supportive spouse role. The social rewards for sacrificing ambitious careers, apparently reserved exclusively for women, make leaving academia behind entirely a more plausible option for women than it is likely to be for men.

One thing that drives academics (really every ambitious career-person) is the sweet, sweet approval of others, coming to us in the form of papers being accepted and cited, grants being funded, and all manner of positive professional recognition of work well done. Suppose though, that you have been struggling to publish your first independent papers or to win an early-career grant. The serial rejections are disheartening. Compared with the grinding discouragement offered by granting agencies and journal editors, the new challenge of starting a family, or making the decision to focus primarily on supporting your family, might look more and more attractive.

At every critical juncture (shifting from student to post-doc, from post-doc to lecturer, etc.), men and women are subject to similar pressures at work but drastically different prospects if they choose to turn their focus away from work: in a dual-career marriage, a woman who opts to become the lead spouse and put her career aside will be making a completely “normal” decision, one that all her family and community might be expecting her to make and will perhaps even applaud her for, one that few people will find surprising or objectionable. Making the decision to be the supportive spouse may entail sacrificing some ambition, but the woman who makes this choice will at least have the immediate hit of affirming social approval. However, picture a man considering the same decision: in addition to decreasing his odds of the earning the most coveted professional successes, he can look forward to the many bewildering social encounters that Moravcsik describes. He is unlikely to expect his parents and extended family to rejoice over this decision. In a sense, his choice is more restricted, but it leads also to the greater likelihood that he will remain ambitious at work.

Women who are showing equivalent skills to their male peers are more likely to leave work at every stage. We treat the perseverance necessary for success as a heroic feat, and wring our hands over why women are less likely to have it, but there is little reason to think that men and women differ in this trait. The choices they are likely to make are not really so unexpected if we treat men and women who prioritize their families so differently.