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Study: Competitive ‘US Effect’ On Research Encourages Scientists To Exaggerate Results

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In a research trend being labeled the “U.S. effect,” a new analysis of more than 1,000 research papers in genetics and psychiatry finds that scientists are more likely to exaggerate their scientific findings in response to competition. (PATRICK KOVARIK/AFP/GettyImages)

In a research trend being labeled the “U.S. effect,” a new analysis of more than 1,000 research papers in genetics and psychiatry finds that scientists are more likely to exaggerate their scientific findings in response to competition. (PATRICK KOVARIK/AFP/GettyImages)

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WASHINGTON (CBS DC) – In a research trend being labeled the “U.S. effect,” a new analysis of more than 1,000 research papers in genetics and psychiatry finds that scientists are more likely to exaggerate their scientific findings in response to competition.

The University of Edinburgh analysis finds that American scientists who study human behavior are more likely to report eye-catching and exciting results due to intense competition and the rewarding of immediately impactful findings in their field.

One of the authors of the analysis, Daniele Fanelli, stated that the pressure in the U.S. for research funds leads many researchers to lose sight of the quality of their work and the long-term contribution it could have in its respective field.

The “U.S. effect” tended to simply confirm researchers’ own original hypotheses.

“We don’t know what causes the U.S. effect but we think the most likely explanation is that it’s about the research environment in the U.S.,” said Fanelli. “Somehow the researchers there are subtly more pressured than elsewhere in the world to make strong discoveries. This very idea that you do science to make strong discoveries is natural but it’s a problem to science itself. Science should be about doing good, precise studies. Not necessarily about getting exciting new results every time.”

The analysis of 1,174 primary outcomes from behavioral studies published in health-related biological and behavioral research journals showed that such research produced results with extreme effects that often slanted towards the researchers’ original speculations on a respective topic.

However, non-behavioral studies showed no such “U.S. effect” and had less extreme findings.

In the course of studying the strength of a specific effect – for example, the effectiveness of a drug or a form of psychiatric intervention – the studies with U.S.-based primary authors had a 5 percent stronger effect than the average across all countries.

“It’s not that other countries don’t have these kinds of biases,” said Fanelli. “But, compared to what happens on average, the U.S. is a bit above the average.”

Chris Chambers, a psychologist at Cardiff University who was not involved in the study, said that the exaggerated discoveries are harmful to science in the long-run.

“My belief is that US scientists aren’t actively engaging in mass fraud – instead, most of these questionable practices are unconscious,” he told The Guardian. “It’s easy to fool ourselves into thinking that a result which ‘feels’ right is in fact true. This problem is known as confirmation bias, which ironically was itself discovered by psychologists.”

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