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Wednesday, July 1, 2020

The Red Team Challenge (Part 3): Is it Feasible in Practice?

By Daniel Lakens & Leonid Tiokhin

Also read Part 1 and Part 2 in this series on our Red Team Challenge.


Six weeks ago, we launched the Red Team Challenge: a feasibility study to see whether it could be worthwhile to pay people to find errors in scientific research. In our project, we wanted to see to what extent a “Red Team” - people hired to criticize a scientific study with the goal to improve it - would improve the quality of the resulting scientific work.

Currently, the way that error detection works in science is a bit peculiar. Papers go through the peer-review process and get the peer-reviewed “stamp of approval”. Then, upon publication, some of these same papers receive immediate and widespread criticism. Sometimes this even leads to formal corrections or retractions. And this happens even at some of the most prestigious scientific journals.

So, it seems that our current mechanisms of scientific quality control leave something to be desired. Nicholas Coles, Ruben Arslan, and the authors of this post (Leonid Tiokhin and Daniël Lakens) were interested in whether Red Teams might be one way to improve quality control in science.

Ideally, a Red Team joins a research project from the start and criticizes each step of the process. However, doing this would have taken the duration of an entire study. At the time, it also seemed a bit premature -- we didn’t know whether anyone would be interested in a Red Team approach, how it would work in practice, and so on. So, instead, Nicholas Coles, Brooke Frohlich, Jeff Larsen, and Lowell Gaertner volunteered one of their manuscripts (a completed study that they were ready to submit for publication). We put out a call on Twitter, Facebook, and the 20% Statistician blog, and 22 people expressed interest. On May 15th, we randomly selected five volunteers based on five areas of expertise: Åse Innes-Ker (affective science), Nicholas James (design/methods), Ingrid Aulike (statistics), Melissa Kline (computational reproducibility), and Tiago Lubiana (wildcard category). The Red Team was then given three weeks to report errors.

Our Red Team project was somewhat similar to traditional peer review, except that we 1) compensated Red Team members’ time with a $200 stipend, 2) explicitly asked the Red Teamers to identify errors in any part of the project (i.e., not just writing), 3) gave the Red Team full access to the materials, data, and code, and 4) provided financial incentives for identifying critical errors (a donation to the GiveWell charity non-profit for each unique “critical error” discovered).

The Red Team submitted 107 error reports. Ruben Arslan--who helped inspire this project with his Bug Bounty Program--served as the neutral arbiter. Ruben examined the reports, evaluated the authors’ responses, and ultimately decided whether an issue was “critical” (see this post for Ruben’s reflection on the Red Team Challenge) Of the 107 reports, Ruben concluded that there were 18 unique critical issues (for details, see this project page). Ruben decided that any major issues that potentially invalidated inferences were worth $100, minor issues related to computational reproducibility were worth $20, and minor issues that could be resolved without much work were worth $10. After three weeks, the total final donation was $660. The Red Team detected 5 major errors. These included two previously unknown limitations of a key manipulation, inadequacies in the design and description of the power analysis, an incorrectly reported statistical test in the supplemental materials, and a lack of information about the sample in the manuscript. Minor issues concerned reproducibility of code and clarifications about the procedure.



After receiving this feedback, Nicholas Coles and his co-authors decided to hold off submitting their manuscript (see this post for Nicholas’ personal reflection). They are currently conducting a new study to address some of the issues raised by the Red Team.

We consider this to be a feasibility study of whether a Red Team approach is practical and worthwhile. So, based on this study, we shouldn’t draw any conclusions about a Red Team approach in science except one: it can be done.

That said, our study does provide some food for thought. Many people were eager to join the Red Team. The study’s corresponding author, Nicholas Coles, was graciously willing to acknowledge issues when they were pointed out. And it was obvious that, had these issues been pointed out earlier, the study would have been substantially improved before being carried out. These findings make us optimistic that Red Teams can be useful and feasible to implement.

In an earlier column, the issue was raised that rewarding Red Team members with co-authorship on the subsequent paper would create a conflict of interest -- too severe criticism on the paper might make the paper unpublishable. So, instead, we paid each Red Teamer $200 for their service. We wanted to reward people for their time. We did not want to reward them only for finding issues because, before we knew that 19 unique issues would be found, we were naively worried that the Red Team might find few things wrong with the paper. In interviews with Red Team members, it became clear that the charitable donations for each issue were not a strong motivator. Instead, people were just happy to detect issues for decent pay. They didn't think that they deserved authorship for their work, and several Red Team members didn't consider authorship on an academic paper to be valuable, given their career goals.

After talking with the Red Team members, we started to think that certain people might enjoy Red Teaming as a job – it is challenging, requires skills, and improves science. This opens up the possibility of a freelance services marketplace (such as Fiverr) for error detection, where Red Team members are hired at an hourly rate and potentially rewarded for finding errors. It should be feasible to hire people to check for errors at each phase of a project, depending on their expertise and reputation as good error-detectors. If researchers do not have money for such a service, they might be able to set up a volunteer network where people “Red Team” each other’s projects. It could also be possible for universities to create Red Teams (e.g., Cornell University has a computational reproducibility service that researchers can hire).

As scientists, we should ask ourselves when, and for which type of studies, we want to invest time and/or money to make sure that published work is as free from errors as possible. As we continue to consider ways to increase the reliability of science, a Red Team approach might be something to further explore.

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