Polarized research

From The Embassy of Good Science

Polarized research

What is this about?

Research results are presented in specific manners based on certain interests or perspectives. Polarisation occurs when researchers hold radically opposed views leading to the segregation of the scientific community into groups in part constituted by their opposition to other groups in the field. Polarisation goes beyond mere disagreement. It occurs when researchers begin (a) to self-identify as proponents of a particular position that needs to be strongly defended beyond what is supported by the data and (b) to discount arguments and data that would normally be taken as important in a scientific debate.” [1]

The same data may be analysed and presented as very different results. “In polarised research scientists come to engage in facting interests instead of revealing interesting facts.” [2]
  1. Ploug, T., & Holm, S. (2015). Conflict of interest disclosure and the polarisation of scientific communities.Journal of medical ethics, 41(4), 356-358.
  2. Hofmann, B. (2018). Fake facts and alternative truths in medical research.BMC medical ethics, 19(1), 4.

Why is this important?

Polarized research is a type of bias that with basis in (covert) conflict of interest. Therefore it may misguide or distort the production of knowledge. Being aware of polarized research is tremendously important for readers of scientific papers, for researchers, for editors, for information specialists (synthesizing knowledge), and for users of scientific evidence, such as policy makers.

Results on climate change have, for example, been polarized. Moreover, there are many examples from health care, where studies of effects of various procedures vary greatly – even when based on the same data. One of the most familiar cases from health care involves studies on mammography screening of women for breast cancer, where results on breast cancer mortality reduction and overdiagnosis vary greatly.

While professional disagreement is what drives scientific progress, polarized research hampers it, as it frequently becomes static and entrenched. Or it can be related to "choice-supportive bias." It is an interesting issue whether polarized research borders on misconduct, as it involves strong and often covert conflict of interest. However, the interest is not directly related to money or profit. Alternatively, scientific conferences and consensus conferences can be one constructive manner to address the problem.

For whom is this important?

What are the best practices?

Holm and Ploug suggest that researchers should address the following two questions:

  1. If the results of your current (well planned and well conducted) project point in the opposite direction of the results of your previous research on this topic, would your first reaction be to reanalyse the data and reconsider your methods, or to reconsider your previous conclusions?
  2. If your findings were the exact same as the opposing researchers in this field of research, would your policy recommendations be any different from the recommendations of the opposing group? [1]

Four questions about polarized research:

  • Why does polarized research exist? Because researchers have different perspectives and interests.
  • Is polarized research fraud? No, because it is based on valid scientific methods.
  • How does polarized research occur? Researchers may use different definitions, indexes, end-points, models, statistical methods, interpretations etc making their results come out very differently.
  • How can we avoid polarized research? One suggestion is to force authors to declare “polarized conflict of interest” when submitting papers. Another is to make editors and publishers check for polarized conflicts of interest.
  1. Ploug, T., & Holm, S. (2015). Conflict of interest disclosure and the polarisation of scientific communities.Journal of medical ethics, 41(4), 356-358.