From Galway to San Francisco – The Berkeley Initiative for Transparency in the Social Sciences

By Elaine Toomey

Dr Elaine Toomey recently received a Leamer-Rosenthal Prize for Open Social Science, in the Emerging Researchers Category. In this blog she shares her journey and some of her experiences.

I started in my current role as Health Research Board (HRB) Interdisciplinary Capacity Enhancement (ICE) post-doctoral research fellow with the Health Behaviour Change Research Group (HBCRG) August 2016, having submitted my thesis in May. For me, being a post-doc has been an exciting new step, helping me figure out my path in research, and realising that what really interests me are the methods and ways in which research is done, particularly in terms of how behaviour change interventions are developed and tested. It has also opened up a whole new world of possibilities, with encouragement from my supervisor Dr Molly Byrne and the rest of the HBCRG team to ‘apply for everything’!! With this in mind, I submitted an application to the Leamer-Rosenthal competition for Open Social Science in September 2016, run by the Berkeley Initiative for Transparency in the Social Sciences (BITSS) in California. Two months later on a cold and rainy day in Galway, I was waiting for a bus at 7am and turned on my phone to find an email from BITSS. Expecting to see the usual ‘we regret to inform you…’, it took me about five attempts to read the email before I realised that I had been chosen as one of the seven winners in the Emerging Researcher category, and that as well as winning $10,000, they would fly me to California to attend their annual meeting and prize-giving!

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So on another cold and rainy morning in Ireland, I flew to San Francisco with my trusty sidekick (a.k.a. my mother) to spend 10 days in the ‘Bay Area’. After a whirlwind of sightseeing and taking in the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz to name but two of San Francisco’s many delights, we arrived in University of California, Berkeley (about 20 minutes from downtown San Francisco) for the two-day BITSS annual meeting.

The conference was opened by BITSS co-founder and Faculty Director Professor Eduard Miguel, who provided an overview of BITSS and their activities. The initiative was established in 2012 to improve transparency in and strengthen the quality of social science research, and in particular to address issues like publication bias (where research with positive or significant results is more likely to be published than research with negative or non-significant results). The institute has five key goals: Norms and consensus – to make research transparency and openness a normal, common standard activity for all researchers; Tools and resources – to identify or develop resources that can improve research transparency, such as their library of resources; Education – to provide training and education in this area, i.e. the BITSS summer school; Research – to fund research to explore issues with research transparency and generate strategies of addressing it, such as their SSMART grants; and Recognition – to reward work and achievements in this field, using the Leamer-Rosenthal prizes.

bittsAfter the opening, the first day involved keynote speakers Professors Lorena Barba and Stefano DellaVigna, followed by the presentation of Leamer-Rosenthal prizes and an open panel discussion with the prize-winners. The second day was even busier with presentations and talks from six different speakers and a roundtable discussion with journal editors. One of my personal highlights was a talk by Michele Nuijten from Tillburg University in the Netherlands (a fellow recipient of the Leamer-Rosenthal emerging researcher prize) on the development of Statcheck, a software package that can check the accuracy of p-values in journal publications. Overall, what struck me the most was the variety of backgrounds and research fields in the room, from mechanical and aerospace engineering (Professor Barba) to political science (Professor Gabriel Lenz), and the global nature of the contributions, with participants from Stockholm to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I was hugely impressed with the commitment of the BITSS team members, even making videos with the LR winners about their research and thoughts on future of open science – mine is available here!

To conclude, my realisation that an interest in research methods is a valid interest, and the HBCRG ‘apply for everything!’ attitude has helped me initiate a very valuable collaboration with the BITSS network. I am now a BITSS ‘Catalyst’, as part of which I’m aiming to increase awareness of their work and the importance of transparency and reproducibility in research. Although much of the BITSS work is currently quite statistical and quantitative, they are very interested in my research in fidelity and improving transparency of behaviour change interventions, and have agreed to provide funding for process evaluations training in Ireland in 2017 (watch this space!). I think it’s fantastic that they are willing to fund training and research happening thousands and thousands of miles away, as this really shows an open and honest commitment to improving science globally. I’m looking forward to continuing working with them, and getting support to help me continue working towards improving the quality of research in behaviour change interventions.

A recording of day one of the conference is available here, with day two available here.

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