How I Got Banned From Psychology Today’s Facebook Page: An Important Reminder of Why We Must Demand Higher Standards of Science Reporting in the Media
A Psychology Today blogger recently published a post entitled Gender Differences in Personality are Larger than Previously Thought. The post began by stating “a new study confirms that men's minds come from Mars and women's from Venus” [emphasis added]. It then went on to discuss the “huge differences” that exist between the sexes and how “men and women belong to two different species.” Psychology Today was not alone in publishing such provocative claims—many other media outlets reported the same thing. But are these assertions warranted? That’s debatable. The research that formed the basis for the Psychology Today post1 has been questioned by many in the psychological community, who have voiced concerns about the methods used to reach these conclusions. Furthermore, this particular study does not mesh with most published research in this area, which indicates that men and women are far more similar than they are different when it comes to personality.
As a result, when the Psychology Today blog post appeared in my Facebook newsfeed a couple of weeks back, I felt the need to provide a well-reasoned rebuttal. I was among the first to comment and stated that a single study should hardly be taken as “confirmation” of anything because true science is built upon replication—that is, we need to see major findings repeated before we can even think about drawing sweeping conclusions like those proposed in this case. I also mentioned that we need to interpret this study in the context of other research conducted in this area. To that end, I cited a 2005 review paper published in a highly respected journal that analyzed the results of 46 different studies.2 The pattern across these studies revealed that the sexes are very much alike with respect to personality and many other psychological traits. So why should this one new study negate the findings of dozens of others? (Note: For a more elaborated discussion of why you should be skeptical of this "men are from Mars, women are from Venus" idea, see here)
A few hours after posting this comment, I logged back onto Facebook to find that not only had it been deleted, but the Psychology Today Facebook page went so far as to block my ability to make future comments! Needless to say, I found it perplexing that a magazine founded on the principle of accurately conveying psychological research to the public would dismiss my data-driven critique. Although I cannot say with certainty why my commentary was stifled, if the motivation was to protect a sensationalized research report from criticism, I find that to be alarming.
As much as I am concerned about this turn of events, I must say that I am even more troubled that the results of this research were even publicized so widely to begin with because the journal in which this research was originally published is a questionable source, at least in my opinion. The journal is PLoS ONE, which only appeared on the scene about five years ago. Although PLoS ONE claims to utilize a rigorous peer-review process, they publish the vast majority of submissions they receive, with a reported acceptance rate of 69%. This high number indicates that PLoS ONE is not incredibly selective about what makes it into print. For comparison purposes, the top journals in the field of psychology typically accept just 15-20% (or fewer) of all submissions they receive.
It is also worth noting that none of the top journals in psychology charge authors to publish their work; in contrast, PLoS ONE requires authors to pay a $1350 “publication fee.” Thus, as long as an author is willing to front the cash, PLoS ONE will publish almost anything. PLoS ONE publishes a huge amount too, including 14,000 papers in 2011 alone! One might reasonably wonder whether there were really 14,000 worthwhile discoveries last year across all of science, let alone in a single journal. Also, at $1350 a pop, this translates to almost $19 million dollars in revenue from publication fees! One has to wonder where all of that money goes, especially considering that PLoS ONE is an online-only journal and therefore does not have the same expenses as traditional print journals…
In my opinion, a scientist should never have to pay in order to get good quality work published. I also feel strongly that journals should be highly selective about what they print and that not every article makes enough of a scientific contribution to merit publication. However, not everyone shares this view, which is why journals like PLoS ONE were created—they exist to ensure that virtually every article ever written will ultimately be published, irrespective of merit. This is highly problematic because it serves to clutter and cloud the literature, making it harder for the public and the media to distinguish good from bad research. Granted, this is a symptom of a larger problem in the world of academia, where professors are pressured to publish an arbitrary number of papers each year and there is a bias toward rewarding publication quantity over quality. The roots of this problem go very deep and, unfortunately, are not likely to be changed any time soon.
However, until something is done about this, we should demand more responsible reporting of scientific research from the popular media. Media reports of research routinely fail to mention journal quality, let alone the quality of the methods and samples utilized in a given study. By ignoring this information, most science news reports give the impression that almost every study is sound, which is both dangerous and misleading. Journalists have an obligation to evaluate the quality of their source material before publishing anything, whether it is scientific, political, or something else entirely. Just because a new study generates a provocative headline is not reason enough to run it on the front page. If there are questions about the reputation of the journal or there are legitimate concerns about the quality of the study, perhaps it should not be covered at all.
I realize I have focused largely on the role of media here, and I should note that scientists bear some responsibility in correcting this problem too. We need to work with college and university administrators to modify the system of rewards to favor scientific quality over quantity. We need to work with the media to help reporters better understand our work and what makes for sound research to ensure that science is accurately reported. We also need to take a more active role in sharing our research with the public, such as by guest writing for popular media outlets and updating relevant Wikipedia entries. As scientists, we are certainly responsible for what we put into our journals, but we must learn to be responsible for what comes out of them as well.
Any way you look at it, the current system of publishing and reporting scientific research is not serving the public interest and we all need to work together to fix it.
1Del Giudice, M., Booth, T., & Irwing, P. (2012). The distance between Mars and Venus: Measuring global sex differences in personality. PLoS ONE 7(1): e29265.
2Hyde, J. S. (2005). The Gender Similarities Hypothesis. American Psychologist, 60, 581-592.
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