The Reliability and Validity of Research

Learning Objectives

  • Define reliability and validity

Interpreting Experimental Findings

Once data is collected from both the experimental and the control groups, a statistical analysis is conducted to find out if there are meaningful differences between the two groups. A statistical analysis determines how likely any difference found is due to chance (and thus not meaningful). For example, if an experiment is done on the effectiveness of a nutritional supplement, and those taking a placebo pill (and not the supplement) have the same result as those taking the supplement, then the experiment has shown that the nutritional supplement is not effective. Generally, psychologists consider differences to be statistically significant if there is less than a five percent chance of observing them if the groups did not actually differ from one another. Stated another way, psychologists want to limit the chances of making “false positive” claims to five percent or less.

The greatest strength of experiments is the ability to assert that any significant differences in the findings are caused by the independent variable. This occurs because random selection, random assignment, and a design that limits the effects of both experimenter bias and participant expectancy should create groups that are similar in composition and treatment. Therefore, any difference between the groups is attributable to the independent variable, and now we can finally make a causal statement. If we find that watching a violent television program results in more violent behavior than watching a nonviolent program, we can safely say that watching violent television programs causes an increase in the display of violent behavior.

Reporting Research

When psychologists complete a research project, they generally want to share their findings with other scientists. The American Psychological Association (APA) publishes a manual detailing how to write a paper for submission to scientific journals. Unlike an article that might be published in a magazine like Psychology Today, which targets a general audience with an interest in psychology, scientific journals generally publish peer-reviewed journal articles aimed at an audience of professionals and scholars who are actively involved in research themselves.

Link to Learning

The Online Writing Lab (OWL) at Purdue University can walk you through the APA writing guidelines.

A peer-reviewed journal article is read by several other scientists (generally anonymously) with expertise in the subject matter. These peer reviewers provide feedback—to both the author and the journal editor—regarding the quality of the draft. Peer reviewers look for a strong rationale for the research being described, a clear description of how the research was conducted, and evidence that the research was conducted in an ethical manner. They also look for flaws in the study’s design, methods, and statistical analyses. They check that the conclusions drawn by the authors seem reasonable given the observations made during the research. Peer reviewers also comment on how valuable the research is in advancing the discipline’s knowledge. This helps prevent unnecessary duplication of research findings in the scientific literature and, to some extent, ensures that each research article provides new information. Ultimately, the journal editor will compile all of the peer reviewer feedback and determine whether the article will be published in its current state (a rare occurrence), published with revisions, or not accepted for publication.

Peer review provides some degree of quality control for psychological research. Poorly conceived or executed studies can be weeded out, and even well-designed research can be improved by the revisions suggested. Peer review also ensures that the research is described clearly enough to allow other scientists to replicate it, meaning they can repeat the experiment using different samples to determine reliability. Sometimes replications involve additional measures that expand on the original finding. In any case, each replication serves to provide more evidence to support the original research findings. Successful replications of published research make scientists more apt to adopt those findings, while repeated failures tend to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the original article and lead scientists to look elsewhere. For example, it would be a major advancement in the medical field if a published study indicated that taking a new drug helped individuals achieve a healthy weight without changing their diet. But if other scientists could not replicate the results, the original study’s claims would be questioned.

In recent years, there has been increasing concern about a “replication crisis” that has affected a number of scientific fields, including psychology. Some of the most well-known studies and scientists have produced research that has failed to be replicated by others (as discussed in Shrout & Rodgers, 2018). In fact, even a famous Nobel Prize-winning scientist has recently retracted a published paper because she had difficulty replicating her results (Nobel Prize-winning scientist Frances Arnold retracts paper, 2020 January 3). These kinds of outcomes have prompted some scientists to begin to work together and more openly, and some would argue that the current “crisis” is actually improving the ways in which science is conducted and in how its results are shared with others (Aschwanden, 2018).

Dig Deeper: The Vaccine-Autism Myth and the Retraction of Published Studies

Some scientists have claimed that routine childhood vaccines cause some children to develop autism, and, in fact, several peer-reviewed publications published research making these claims. Since the initial reports, large-scale epidemiological research has suggested that vaccinations are not responsible for causing autism and that it is much safer to have your child vaccinated than not. Furthermore, several of the original studies making this claim have since been retracted.

A published piece of work can be rescinded when data is called into question because of falsification, fabrication, or serious research design problems. Once rescinded, the scientific community is informed that there are serious problems with the original publication. Retractions can be initiated by the researcher who led the study, by research collaborators, by the institution that employed the researcher, or by the editorial board of the journal in which the article was originally published. In the vaccine-autism case, the retraction was made because of a significant conflict of interest in which the leading researcher had a financial interest in establishing a link between childhood vaccines and autism (Offit, 2008). Unfortunately, the initial studies received so much media attention that many parents around the world became hesitant to have their children vaccinated (Figure 2.19). Continued reliance on such debunked studies has significant consequences. For instance, between January and October of 2019, there were 22 measles outbreaks across the United States and more than a thousand cases of individuals contracting measles (Patel et al., 2019). This is likely due to the anti-vaccination movements that have risen from the debunked research. For more information about how the vaccine/autism story unfolded, as well as the repercussions of this story, take a look at Paul Offit’s book, Autism’s False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure.

A photograph shows a child being given an oral vaccine.

Figure 1. Some people still think vaccinations cause autism. (credit: modification of work by UNICEF Sverige)

Reliability and Validity

Reliability and validity are two important considerations that must be made with any type of data collection. Reliability refers to the ability to consistently produce a given result. In the context of psychological research, this would mean that any instruments or tools used to collect data do so in consistent, reproducible ways. There are a number of different types of reliability. Some of these include inter-rater reliability (the degree to which two or more different observers agree on what has been observed), internal consistency (the degree to which different items on a survey that measure the same thing correlate with one another), and test-retest reliability (the degree to which the outcomes of a particular measure remain consistent over multiple administrations).

Unfortunately, being consistent in measurement does not necessarily mean that you have measured something correctly. To illustrate this concept, consider a kitchen scale that would be used to measure the weight of cereal that you eat in the morning. If the scale is not properly calibrated, it may consistently under- or overestimate the amount of cereal that’s being measured. While the scale is highly reliable in producing consistent results (e.g., the same amount of cereal poured onto the scale produces the same reading each time), those results are incorrect. This is where validity comes into play. Validity refers to the extent to which a given instrument or tool accurately measures what it’s supposed to measure, and once again, there are a number of ways in which validity can be expressed. Ecological validity (the degree to which research results generalize to real-world applications), construct validity (the degree to which a given variable actually captures or measures what it is intended to measure), and face validity (the degree to which a given variable seems valid on the surface) are just a few types that researchers consider. While any valid measure is by necessity reliable, the reverse is not necessarily true. Researchers strive to use instruments that are both highly reliable and valid.

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Everyday Connection: How Valid are the SAT and act?

Standardized tests like the SAT and ACT are supposed to measure an individual’s aptitude for a college education, but how reliable and valid are such tests? Research conducted by the College Board suggests that scores on the SAT have high predictive validity for first-year college students’ GPA (Kobrin, Patterson, Shaw, Mattern, & Barbuti, 2008). In this context, predictive validity refers to the test’s ability to effectively predict the GPA of college freshmen. Given that many institutions of higher education require the SAT or ACT for admission, this high degree of predictive validity might be comforting.

However, the emphasis placed on SAT or ACT scores in college admissions has generated some controversy on a number of fronts. For one, some researchers assert that these tests are biased and place minority students at a disadvantage and unfairly reduces the likelihood of being admitted into a college (Santelices & Wilson, 2010). Additionally, some research has suggested that the predictive validity of these tests is grossly exaggerated in how well they are able to predict the GPA of first-year college students. In fact, it has been suggested that the SAT’s predictive validity may be overestimated by as much as 150% (Rothstein, 2004). Many institutions of higher education are beginning to consider de-emphasizing the significance of SAT scores in making admission decisions (Rimer, 2008).

Recent examples of high profile cheating scandals both domestically and abroad have only increased the scrutiny being placed on these types of tests, and as of March 2019, more than 1000 institutions of higher education have either relaxed or eliminated the requirements for SAT or ACT testing for admissions (Strauss, 2019, March 19).

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Glossary

reliability: consistency and reproducibility of a given result
validity: accuracy of a given result in measuring what it is designed to measure

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