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Avoiding plagiarism, self-plagiarism, and other questionable writing practices: A guide to ethical writing

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Selective reporting of results


GUIDELINE 22: Researchers have an ethical responsibility to report the results of their studies according to their a priori plans. Any post hoc manipulations that may alter the results initially obtained, such as the elimination of outliers or the use of alternative statistical techniques must be described along with an acceptable rationale for using such techniques.

Designing an empirical study takes planning and careful consideration of current theory and research in the area under investigation. When testing for simple causal relationships, it should be relatively easy to predict the specific outcome when producing a change in the causal variable. Most modern investigations, however, are far from simple as they often involve several variables all of which interact in ways that are sometimes difficult, if not impossible, to predict. One positive feature of complex studies is that they can yield many interesting outcomes, but some of these outcomes may also generate results that are contrary to our expectations. When this happens, there may be a temptation to manipulate the statistical analyses in a way that obscures the actual unwanted results obtained (e.g., using a less powerful statistical test, removing outliers), while perhaps simultaneously enhancing the hypothesized results.

Another temptation is to simply not report negative results and only report those results that are consistent with our line of thinking. Other techniques, such as the manipulation of graphs, have been used to distort the presentation of results in a way that make them more consistent with our hypotheses and theories. Such practices are almost always deceptive and are contrary to the basic scholarly-scientific mission of searching for truth. However, there are instances in which practices, such as the removal of outliers, are acceptable given that the author follows established procedures, informs readers of these actions, and provides a cogent rationale for carrying them out.


 
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