by Harris Cooper, PhD
Harris Cooper, PhD, was chair of the APA Journal Article Reporting Standards Working Group. He also served on the committee that revised the APA Publication Manual.
With the holidays around the corner, nothing frustrates us more than incomplete assembly instructions for that bicycle or bookshelf. We fume over the instructions that are unclear or the list of materials that don’t quite match up with the material provided. There seems to be a screw missing. What is this piece for? Does the shelf go in before or after tightening the screws?
In many ways, a psychology research report is like assembly instructions. Without a complete list of the materials and a clear description of the assembly steps, it is impossible for others to understand what we did and what to do to repeat our experiment, if they so desire.
Recently, more people have become interested in what the psychological research says. But, with increased influence comes increased responsibility, and increased scrutiny. And, there has been a growing sense that the instructions in our research reports often do not serve us well.
A desire for “evidence-based” practice is widespread in public health, social services, and education. Before funding a program to, say, reduce drug abuse, improve academic achievement, or assist veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder, the people who control the purse strings want “solid evidence” the program works. Solid evidence means that the studies that purport to evaluate programs and interventions allow confident conclusions about program effectiveness. And, to make this judgment, the research write-ups need to include clear instructions and an accurate list of materials. How else will they know whether studies’ results are to be believed?
In addition to this need for easy replication is a desire for uniformity in discussing results. The amount of psychological research is growing rapidly. When researchers summarize studies, be they about basic topics—such as the influences on memory or the development of morality through the life span—or applied topics, they need to have good descriptions of what was done. Like assembly instructions, these descriptions are used to piece together past research into coherent pictures, to help resolve conflicts in research results, and to identify questions yet to be studied. If the research description is incomplete, it is like assembly instructions that result in a bicycle that we can’t ride or a bookshelf that will collapse.
Not surprising then, greater emphasis today is placed on the reporting of research. So, in preparation for the sixth edition of the Publication Manual, APA formed a working group to look into the issue. As a result, the Publication Manual now recommends that Journal Article Reporting Standards (or the JARS) be followed that summarize the information editors, reviewers, and readers will expect to see in research reports. APA has just released a book I authored to help writers understand and implement the new standards, titled Reporting Research in Psychology: How to Meet Journal Article Reporting Standards. So, how do the JARS work? Find out in next week’s post.