Research And Design Methods

 Prior to beginning work on this discussion, please read the required articles by Skidmore (2008) and Henrich, Heine, & Norenzayan (2010). Carefully review the PSY635 Week Two Discussion ScenarioPreview the document. Apply the scientific method to the information included within the scenario and develop a null and a research hypothesis based on it. Using the hypotheses you have developed, compare the characteristics of the different experimental research designs discussed in the Skidmore (2008) article and choose the one that is most appropriate to adequately test your hypotheses. Identify potential internal threats to validity and explain how you might mitigate these threats. Apply ethical principles to the proposed research and describe the implications of this type of research in terms of the population(s) and cultural consideration(s) represented in the sample(s) within the scenario.

Experimental Design 1

Running Head: EXPERIMENTAL DESIGN

 

 

 

 

 

 

Experimental Design and Some Threats to

Experimental Validity: A Primer

 

Susan Skidmore

Texas A&M University

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Southwest Educational

Research Association, New Orleans, Louisiana, February 6, 2008.

 

 

Experimental Design 2

Abstract

Experimental designs are distinguished as the best method to respond to

questions involving causality. The purpose of the present paper is to explicate

the logic of experimental design and why it is so vital to questions that demand

causal conclusions. In addition, types of internal and external validity threats are

discussed. To emphasize the current interest in experimental designs, Evidence-

Based Practices (EBP) in medicine, psychology and education are highlighted.

Finally, cautionary statements regarding experimental designs are elucidated

with examples from the literature.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Experimental Design 3

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) demands “scientifically based

research” as the basis for awarding many grants in education (2001).

Specifically, the 107th Congress (2001) delineated scientifically-based research

as that which “is evaluated using experimental or quasi-experimental designs”.

Recognizing the increased interest and demand for scientifically-based research

in education policy and practice, the National Research Council released the

publication, Scientific Research in Education (Shavelson & Towne, 2002) a year

after the implementation of NCLB. Almost $5 billion have been channeled to

programs that provide scientifically-based evidence of effective instruction, such

as the Reading First Program (U. S. Department of Education, 2007). With

multiple methods available to education researchers, why does the U. S.

government show partiality to one particular method? The purpose of the

present paper is to explicate the logic of experimental design and why it is so

vital to questions that demand causal conclusions. In addition, types of internal

and external validity threats are discussed. To emphasize the current interest in

experimental designs, Evidence-Based Practices (EBP) in medicine, psychology

and education are highlighted. Finally, cautionary statements regarding

experimental designs are elucidated with examples from the literature.

Experimental Design

An experiment is “that portion of research in which variables are

manipulated and their effects upon other variables observed” (Campbell &

Stanley, 1963, p. 171). Or stated another way, experiments are concerned with

an independent variable (IV) that causes or predicts the outcome of the

 

 

Experimental Design 4

dependent variable (DV). Ideally, all other variables are eliminated, controlled or

distributed in such a way that a conclusion that the IV caused the DV is validly

justified.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 1. Diagram of an experiment.

In Figure 1 above you can see that there are two groups. One group

receives some sort of manipulation that is thought (theoretically or from previous

research) to have an impact on the DV. This is known as the experimental group

because participants in this group receive some type of treatment that is

presumed to impact the DV. The other group, which does not receive a treatment

or instead receives some type of alternative treatment, provides the result of

what would have happened without experimental intervention (manipulation of

the IV).

So how do you determine whether participants will be in the control group

or the experimental group? The answer to this question is one of the

characteristics that underlie the strength of true experimental designs. True

experiments must have three essential characteristics: random assignment to

Outcome measured as DV

No manipulation or alternate manipulation of IV (treatment

or intervention)

Control Group

Manipulation of IV (treatment or intervention)

 

Experimental Group

 

 

Experimental Design 5

groups, an intervention given to at least one group and an alternate or no

intervention for at least one other group, and a comparison of group

performances on some post-intervention measurement (Gall, Gall, & Borg,

2005).

Participants in a true experimental design are randomly allocated to either

the control group or the experimental group. A caution is necessary here.

Random assignment is not equivalent to random sampling. Random sampling

determines who will be in the study, while random assignment determines in

which groups participants will be. Random assignment makes “samples

randomly similar to each other, whereas random sampling makes a sample

similar to a population” (Shadish, Cook, & Campbell, 2002, p. 248, emphasis in

original). Nonetheless, random assignment is extremely important. By randomly

assigning participants (or groups of participants) to either the experimental or

control group, each participant (or groups of participants) is as likely to be

assigned to one group as to the other (Gall et al., 2005). In other words, by giving

each participant an equal probability of being a member of each group, random

assignment equates the groups on all other factors, except for the intervention

that is being implemented, thereby ensuring that the experiment will produce

“unbiased estimates of the average treatment effect” (Rosenbaum, 1995, p. 37).

To be clear, the term “unbiased estimates” describes the fact that any observed

effect differences between the study results and the “true” population are due to

chance (Shadish et al., 2002).

 

 

Experimental Design 6

This equality of groups assertion is based on the construction of infinite

number of random assignments of participants (or groups of participants) to

treatment groups in the study and not to the single random assignment in the

particular study (Shadish et al., 2002). Thankfully, researchers do not have to

conduct an infinite number of random assignments in an infinite number of

studies for this assumption to hold. The equality of groups‟ assumption is

supported in studies with large sample sizes, but not in studies with very small

sample sizes. This is true due to the law of large numbers. As Boger (2005)

explained, “If larger and larger samples are successively drawn from a population

and a running average calculated after each sample has been drawn, the

sequence of averages will converge to the mean, µ, of the population” (p. 175). If

the reader is interested in exploring this concept further, the reader is directed to

George Boger‟s article that details how to create a spreadsheet simulation of the

law of large numbers. In addition, a medical example of this is found in

Observational Studies (Rosenbaum, 1995, pp. 13-15).

To consider the case of small sample size, let us suppose that I have a

sample of 10 graduate students that I am going to randomly assign to one of two

treatment groups. The experimental group will have regularly scheduled graduate

advisor meetings to monitor students‟ educational progress. The control group

will not have regularly scheduled graduate advisor meetings. Just to see what

happens, I choose to do several iterations of this random assignment process. Of

course, I discover that the identity of the members in the groups across iterations

is wildly different.

 

 

Experimental Design 7

Recognizing that most people are outliers on at least some variables

(Thompson, 2006), there may be some observed differences that are due simply

to the variable characteristics of the members of the treatment groups. For

example, let‟s say that six of the ten graduate students are chronic

procrastinators, and might benefit greatly from regular scheduled visits with a

graduate advisor, while four of the ten graduate students are intrinsically

motivated and tend to experience increased anxiety with frequent graduate

advisor inquiries. If the random assignment process distributes these six

procrastinator graduate students equally among the two groups, a bias due to

this characteristic will not evidence itself in the results. If instead, due to chance

all four intrinsically motivated students end up in the experimental group, the

results of the study may not be the same had the groups been more evenly

distributed. Ridiculously small sample sizes, therefore would result in more

pronounced differences between the groups that are not due to treatment effects,

but instead are due to the variable characteristics of the members in the groups.

If instead I have a sample of 10,000 graduate students that that I am going

to randomly assign to one of two treatment groups, the law of large numbers

works for me. As explained by Thompson et al. (2005), “The beauty of true

experiments is that the law of large numbers creates preintervention group

equivalencies on all variables, even variables that we do not realize are essential

to control” (p. 183). While there is still not identical membership across treatment

groups, and I still expect that the observed differences between the control group

and the experimental group are going to be due to any possible treatment effects

 

 

Experimental Design 8

and to the error associated with the random assignment process, the expectation

of equality of groups is nevertheless reasonably approximated. In other words, I

expect the ratio of procrastinators to intrinsically motivated students to be

approximately the same across the two treatment groups. In fact, I expect

proportions of variables I am not even aware of to be the same, on average,

across treatment groups!

The larger sample size has greatly decreased the error due to chance

associated with the random assignment process. As you can see in Figure 2,

even if both of the sample studies produce identical treatment effects, the results

are not equally valid. The majority of the effect observed in the small sample

size study is actually due to error associated with the random assignment

process and not a result of the treatment. This effect due to error is greatly

reduced in the large sample size study.

 

 

 

Figure 2. Observed treatment effects in two studies with different sample sizes.

The white area represents the amount of the observed effect due to the error

associated with the random assignment process. The grey area represents the

“true” treatment effect.

Three Experimental Designs

When well-conducted, a randomized experiment is considered the “gold

standard” in causal research (Campbell, 1957; Campbell & Stanley, 1963;

“True” treatment

effects

 

n=10

 

error

“True” treatment

effects

 

n=10,000

e

r

r

o

r

 

 

Experimental Design 9

Sackett, Strauss, Richardson, Rosenberg, & Haynes, 2000; Thompson, 2006). In

fact, “No other type of quantitative research (descriptive, correlational, or causal-

comparative) is as powerful in demonstrating the existence of cause-and-effect

relationships among variables as experimental research” (Gall et al., 2005, p.

249). There are three designs that meet the characteristics of true experimental

designs, first described by Campbell (1957) and revisited in several research

design texts. While other designs have the potential to produce causal effects

(see Odom et al., 2005; Rosenbaum, 1995; Thompson et al., 2005) only the

three classic true experimental designs are discussed in the present paper. For a

more extensive description of other experimental designs, the reader is directed

to research design works such as Campbell (1957); Campbell and Stanley

(1963); Creswell (2003); Gall et al. (2005); Shadish et al. (2002); and Thompson

(2006).

The first true experimental design is known as the Pretest-Posttest

Control-Group Design. This research design meets the characteristics of a true

experiment because participants are randomly assigned (denoted by an R) to

either the experimental or control group. There is an intervention or treatment

(denoted by an X) given to one group, the experimental group, and no

intervention (or alternate intervention) given to the other group, the control group.

Finally, there is some form of post-intervention measurement (denoted by an O).

This is also known as a posttest, because this measurement occurs after the

intervention. In addition, in this particular design, there is also a pretest, denoted

by an O prior to the intervention. The pretest allows the researcher to test for

 

 

Experimental Design 10

equality of groups on the variable of interest prior to the intervention. These

designs are “read” left to right to correspond to the passage of time (i.e., what

happens first, second).

Experimental Group R O X O

Control Group R O O

The second true experiment is the Posttest-Only Control Group Design.

This design varies from the first in that it controls for possible confounding effects

of a pretest because it does not use a pre-intervention measurement. All three

characteristics of a true experimental design are present as in the previous

design: random assignment, intervention implemented with experimental group

only, and post-intervention measurement.

Experimental Group R X O

Control Group R O

The third and final design is the Solomon Four-Group Design. This design

is the strongest of the three. It not only corrects for the possible confounding

effects of a pretest, but allows you to compare these results, to an experimental

and control group that did receive a pretest. The major drawback to this design

compared to the others is the obvious increase in sample size needed to meet

the needs of four treatment groups as opposed to two treatment groups.

Experimental Group (with pre-test) R O X O

Control Group (with pre-test) R O O

Experimental Group (without pre-test) R X O

Control Group (without pre-test) R O

 

In addition to detailing these designs in their seminal work, Campbell and

Stanley (1963) firmly established their explicit commitment to experiments “as

 

 

Experimental Design 11

the only means for settling disputes regarding educational practice, as the only

way of verifying educational improvements, and as the only way of establishing

a cumulative tradition in which improvements can be introduced without the

danger of a faddish discard of old wisdom in favor of inferior novelties”(Campbell

& Stanley, 1963, p. 172).

Validity Threats

Even when these designs are used, there are differences in how rigidly

they are followed as well as to what extent the researcher addresses the multiple

threats to validity (see Figure 3 below). Threats to validity are important not only

to research designer but also to consumers of research. An informed consumer

of research wants to rule out all competing hypothesis and be firmly convinced

that the evidence supports the claim that the IV caused the DV. To merit this

conclusion, an evaluation of the study is necessary to determine whether threats

to experimental validity were recognized and mitigated.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 3. Example of a research experiment and the questions you should ask

yourself about internal and external validity. Adapted from (Sani & Todman,

2006).

hypothesized effects

 

internal validity

Are we really observing these effects or the

effects of other variables on the DV

(procrastination vs. intrinsically motivated)?

 

external validity

Are these effects to be found in other

contexts and people, or are they specific to

our experimental setting and participants?

 

Independent Variable Graduate Advisor Meetings

 

Dependent Variable Procrastination/

Motivation scale

 

 

 

Experimental Design 12

Internal Validity

Creswell defines internal validity threats as those “experimental

procedures, treatments, or experiences of the participants that threaten the

researchers‟ ability to draw correct inferences from the data in an experiment”

(2003, p. 171). In their classic text, Campbell and Stanley (1963) identified eight

threats to internal validity. In a more recent text, Shadish, Cook and Campbell

(2002) addressed nine threats to validity which are described below. For an

extensive list of threats to internal and external validity, the reader is directed to

Onwuegbuzie‟s work that cogently expresses the need to evaluate “all

quantitative research studies” (2000, p. 7), not just experimental design studies,

for threats to internal and external validity.

1. Ambiguous temporal precedence: uncertainty about which occurred first (IV

or DV) which would lead to questions about which variable is the cause and

which is the effect.

2. Selection bias: a systematic bias resulting in non-random selection of

participants to groups. By definition random assignment prevents selection bias,

if and only if the law of large numbers can be invoked.

3. History: an event that may occur between measurements that is not part of the

intervention that could impact the posttest measurement. For example, let us

return to the ten fictional graduate students described previously in the study.

Let‟s say they were all living in the same dorm and the fire alarm kept going off

the night before they were to take the motivation/ procrastination measurement

instrument. Due to lack of sleep, participants may perform differently on the

 

 

Experimental Design 13

motivation/ procrastination scale than they would have had they gotten enough

sleep.

4. Maturation: an observed change that is naturally occurring (such as aging,

fatigue, hair length, number of graduate hours completed) that may be confused

with the intervention effects but is really a function of the passage of time.

5. Statistical regression: the phenomenon that occurs when participant selection

is based on extreme scores whereby the scores become less extreme, which

may appear to be the intervention effect. If in our study of graduate students we

purposively select students based on pretest scores of extreme procrastination,

the extreme procrastinator graduate students will on the posttest not be as

extreme in their procrastination tendencies.

Regression toward the mean was first documented by Sir Francis Galton

in the late 1800s. Galton (1886) measured the heights of fathers and sons at a

World Exposition. Galton found that very tall fathers tended to have sons who

were not quite as tall, and that very short fathers tended to have sons who were

not quite as short. Clearly, this phenomenon is not a function of the exercise of

will (i.e., fathers did not say to their wives, “Let‟s make a shorter son” or “Let‟s

make a taller son”)!

6. Experimental mortality or attrition: a concern about a differential loss of

participants, or of different types of participants from the experimental or control

group that may produce an effect that appears to be due to the intervention. For

example, if half of the students in the experimental group drop out of the study,

but none of the control group members drop, we would likely question the results.

 

 

Experimental Design 14

Were those students that left somehow different from the ones that remained? If

so, would that difference have produced differential results than the ones we

observed with the remaining participants?

7. Testing: the concern that a testing event will impact scores of a subsequent

testing event. For example, if we give the graduate students the procrastination/

motivation scale prior to any graduate advisor meetings (the intervention), and

then after the intervention we give them the procrastination/ motivation scale

again, we may observe difference in the pre- and posttest that are due partly to

familiarity with the test or the influence of the testing itself.

8. Instrumentation: the change in either the measurement instrument itself or the

manner in which the instrument is implemented or scored that may cause

changes that appear to be due to the intervention, or the failure to detect

changes that actually did occur. For example, if between the first and second

time that the procrastination/motivation test is given, the developers of the exam

decide to remove ten of the questions, we do not know if the exclusion of those

questions is responsible for differential scores or if the differences are due to

treatment effects.

9. Additive and interactive effect of threats to internal validity: the concern that

the impact of the threats may be additive or that presence of one threat may

impact another. A selection-history additive effect occurs when nonequivalent

groups are selected. For example, groups may be selected from two different

locations, such as, rural and urban areas. The participants in the groups are

nonequivalent by selection and they also have unique local histories. The

 

 

Experimental Design 15

resulting net bias is dependent on both the direction and magnitude of each

individual bias and how the biases combine. Selection-maturation, and selection-

instrumentation are other versions of this type of effect.

External Validity

External validity threats are threats of “incorrect inferences from the

sample data to other persons, other settings, and past or future situations”

(Creswell, 2003, p. 171). Researchers must always remember the context from

which their sample comes from, and take caution not to overgeneralize beyond

that.

Campbell and Stanley (1963) included four threats to external validity.

Shadish (2002) listed five external validity threats, as detailed below.

1. Interaction of the causal relationship with participants: an effect with certain

kinds of participants that may not be present (or present to the same extent) with

other kinds of participants. For example, reduction of salt intake in hypertensive

patients is more beneficial to certain populations than others (American Heart

Association Nutrition Committee, 2006).

2. Interaction of the causal relationship over treatment variations: the

permanence of the causal relationship is dependent on fidelity to the specific

treatment, thus possibly producing differential effects when treatments are

varied. If a particular instructional intervention includes 5 components, the causal

relationship may not hold if only 2 or 3 of the components are utilized.

3. Interaction of the causal relationships with outcomes: an effect that is present

with one type of outcome measurement that may not be present (or present to

 

 

Experimental Design 16

the same extent) if other outcome measurements were used. For example, if a

person scores highest on a test for physical strength they may not necessarily

score highest on a flexibility test.

4. Interactions of the causal relationship with settings: an effect that is present in

a particular setting may not be present (or present to the same extent) in a

different setting. For example, a particular after school character development

program involving community project work may not work equally well in rural

versus urban areas.

5. Context-dependent mediation: an explanatory mediator of a causal

relationship in one context may not have the same impact in another context. For

example, a study might find that a reduction in federal funding has no impact on

student achievement because schools were able to turn to education foundation

grants to provide them with additional resources. In another school district where

schools did not have access to education foundation resources, the same causal

mechanism may not be available.

In addition to internal and external validity threats, there are other threats

that we need to be aware of in the design and evaluation of studies. Interested

readers may refer to such texts as Experimental and Quasi-Experimental

Designs (Shadish et al., 2002) or Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative, and

Mixed Methods Approaches (Creswell, 2003) for information about statistical

conclusion validity and construct validity concerns.

 

 

 

 

Experimental Design 17

EBP in Medicine, Psychology and Education

While the origins of EBP may date back to the origin of scientific

reasoning, the Evidence-Based Medicine Working Group (EBMWG) brought the

discussion of EBP to the forefront of medicine (1992). In 1996, Evidence-Based

Medicine (EBM) was defined as “the conscientious, explicit, and judicious use of

current best evidence in making decisions about the care of individual patients.

The practice of evidence based medicine means integrating individual clinical

expertise with the best available external clinical evidence from systematic

research” (Sackett, Rosenberg, Gray, Haynes, & Richardson, 1996, p. 71). While

EBP has many supporters in medicine, EBP has caused some concerns among

practitioners. Researchers have addressed concerns regarding the perception of

EBM as a top down approach that results in ivory tower researchers dictating

how practitioners should practice (Sackett et al., 1996) or similarly that evidence

from randomized controlled trials may be valued more highly than practitioner

expertise (Kübler, 2000).

Yet, it is difficult to deny that there is great support for EBP considering the

number of periodicals that have emerged since the years after EBMWG

convened. A keyword search for “evidence-based” returns 100 serials on

WorldCAT. A keyword search for “evidence-based” returns 96 serials in Ulrich’s

Periodical Directory. At least 32 active periodicals, either in print form, electronic

form, or both contain “evidence-based” within the title of the periodical. At least

26 of these periodicals are available electronically. See Table 1.

 

 

Experimental Design 18

From the titles you can see that the majority of these periodicals are from

a health-related field. It is important to note that while EBP do not only include

randomized, experimental trials, the purpose of the table is to demonstrate the

popularity of EBP that began in the mid 1990s and continues today.

Table 1

“Evidence-Based” periodicals

Start Year Title of Periodical

 

1994 Bandolier: Evidence-Based Healthcare

1995 Evidence-Based Medicine

1996 Focus on Alternative and Complementary Therapies: An Evidence-

Based Approach

1997 Evidence-Based Cardiovascular Medicine

1997 Evidence-Based Medicine in Practice

1997 (1998) Evidence-Based Mental Health

1997 (1998) Evidence-Based Nursing

1997 Evidence-Based Obstetrics and Gynecology

1998 EBN Online

1998 Evidence-Based Dentistry

1998 Evidence-Based Practice

1998 Evidence-Based Practice: Patient Oriented Evidence That Matters

1999 Evidence-Based Dental Practice

1999 (2002) Trends in Evidence-Based Neuropsychiatry: T.E.N.

 

 

Experimental Design 19

Table 1 (continued).

Start Year Title of Periodical

 

2000

 

Evidence-Based Gastroenterology

2000 Evidence-Based Oncology

2000 Trauma Reports: Evidence-Based Medicine for the ED

2001 Journal of Evidence-Based Dental Practice

2003 Evidence-Based Integrative Medicine

2003 Evidence-Based Midwifery

2003 Evidence-Based Preventive Medicine

2003 Evidence-Based Surgery

2003 (2005) International Journal of Evidence-Based Healthcare

2004 Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine: eCAM

2004 Journal of Evidence-Based Social Work

2004 Worldviews on Evidence-Based Nursing

2005 Advances in Psychotherapy: Evidence-Based Practice

2005 Evidence-Based Ophthalmology

2005 Journal of Evidence-Based Practices for Schools

2006 Evidence-Based Child Health

2006 Evidence-Based Library and Information Practice

2007 Evidence-Based Communication Assessment and Intervention

Periodicals available electronically are shown in bold.

Parenthetical dates indicate different start year date in WorldCAT.

 

 

Experimental Design 20

The popularity of EBP is evident in psychology as well. The American

Psychological Association‟s Presidential Task Force on Evidence-Based Practice

specifically defined Evidence-Based Practice in Psychology (EBPP) as “the

integration of the best available research with clinical expertise in the context of

patient characteristics, culture, and preferences” (2006, p. 273). In addition to

advocating evidence-based practices, this task force also established the two

necessary components for evaluation of psychological interventions: treatment

efficacy and clinical utility. Treatment efficacy specifically addresses questions

such as how well a particular treatment works. This type of question lends itself

to experimental investigation to draw valid causal conclusions about the effect of

a particular intervention (or lack thereof) on a particular disorder (American

Psychological Association, 2002). Chambless and Hollon (1998), in their review

of psychological treatment literature, provide a description of variables of interest

when evaluating treatment efficacy in research studies. The Task Force

acknowledged that while there are other methods that may lead to causal

conclusions “randomized controlled experiments represent a more stringent way

to evaluate treatment efficacy because they are the most effective way to rule out

threats to internal validity in a single experiment” (American Psychological

Association, 2002, p. 1054).

The appeals for evidence continue also in the field of education. Grover J.

(Russ) Whitehurst, who directs the Education Department’s Institute of Education

Sciences, defined Evidence-Based Education (EBE) as “the integration of

professional wisdom with the best available empirical evidence in making

 

 

Experimental Design 21

decisions about how to deliver instruction” (in Towne, 2005, p. 41). Whitehurst

(2002b) explained that without empirical evidence education is at the mercy of

the latest educational craze. In addition, asserted that cumulative knowledge

cannot be generated without empirical evidence. To assist education

practitioners in the identification of EBP, a practical guide has been provided (see

Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy, 2003).

Table 2

Definitions of EBP in medicine, psychology and education

Field Definition

Evidence-based

medicine (EBM)

“the conscientious, explicit, and judicious use of current best

evidence in making decisions about the care of individual

patients. The practice of evidence based medicine means

integrating individual clinical expertise with the best available

external clinical evidence from systematic research” (Sackett et

al., p. 71).

Evidence-based

practices in

psychology (EBPP)

“the integration of the best available research with clinical

expertise in the context of patient characteristics, culture, and

preferences” (American Psychological Association, 2006, p. 273).

Evidence-based

education (EBE)

“the integration of professional wisdom with the best available

empirical evidence in making decisions about how to deliver

instruction” (Whitehurst, 2002b, Slide 3).

 

Medicine, psychology, and education all have seemed to have jumped on

the evidence wagon. Their definitions share the common themes of integration of

 

 

Experimental Design 22

expertise with the best available evidence (see Table 2 above). We cannot

ignore this need to balance practitioner expertise with empirical evidence

whether in the field of medicine, psychology or education. As Kübler (2000)

cautions:

Undoubtedly evidence based medicine is the gold standard for modern

medicine. The results, however, should be applied in patient care with

careful reflection. Otherwise evidence based medicine may acquire the

same status for the doctor as a lamp post for a drunk: it gives more

support than enlightenment. (p. 135)

Frequency of Experiments in Different Disciplines

One final caution is offered. It is imperative that consumers and producers

of research critically evaluate research. In addition to threats to validity, we must

keep in mind that experiments are conducted by people. People are fallible. We

are prone to make mistakes, both consciously and unconsciously. An example

of this is a graph that appears to be from the same data, yet describes different

results. What is critical about these graphs is that depending on which one you

look at, education ranks third, fourth, or first in cumulative total number of reports

of trials identified from the Campbell Collaboration Social, Psychological,

Educational and Criminological Trials Register (C2-SPECTR) (Petrosino, Boruch,

Rounding, McDonald, & Chalmers, 2000).

One graph depicts education behind criminology and psychology, but

ahead of social policy (Boruch, Moya, & Snyder, 2002, p. 63). The authors

describe the graph as follows:

 

 

Experimental Design 23

Figure 3-4 shows the increase in the number of articles on randomized

and possibly randomized experiments that have appeared in about 100

peer-reviewed journals and in other places since 1950. The figure is

based on the Campbell Collaboration Social, Psychological, Educational,

and Criminological Trials Registry (C2-SPECTR) that is being developed

in a continuing effort to identify all RFTs. (p. 62).

The authors correctly cite Petrosino et al. (2000) as the source of the graph.

In another graph, which cites Boruch et al. (2002), education is now in last

place behind criminology, psychology and social policy respectively (Whitehurst,

2002b). The following description was offered in Whitehurst‟s (2002b)

presentation:

This chart indicates the total number of articles about randomized field

trials in other areas of social science research (criminology, social policy

and psychology) has steadily grown over the last 40 years; however, the

number related to education research has trailed behind. (Table

Description, Slide 22)

In a very similar presentation by Whitehurst (2002a), a more extensive

description of the same graph is provided:

While the total number of articles about randomized field trials in other

areas of social science research has steadily grown, the number in

education research has trailed behind. The graph on this slide measures

the growth of randomized field trials from 1950 to the present in the areas

of criminology, social policy, psychology, and education. It shows that the

 

 

Experimental Design 24

most rapid growth has been in criminology, followed by comparable rates

of growth in social policy and psychology, with education having the least

amount of growth. Source for the graph: Robert Boruch, Dorothy de Moya,

and Brooke Snyder, 2001. (slide 21)

The correct year for the citation is actually 2002.

Finally, in still another version of the graph, education is leading the pack

followed by psychology, social and criminology (Petrosino, Boruch, Soydan,

Duggan, & Sanchez-Meca, 2001). The following description is offered:

To facilitate the work of reviewers, the Campbell Collaboration Social,

Psychological, Educational and Criminological Trials Register (C2-

SPECTR) is in development. As Figure 2 shows, preliminary work toward

C2-SPECTR has already identified more than 10000 citations to

randomized or possibly randomized trials. (p. 28)

Petrosino et al. (2001) cite Petrosino et al. (2000), the same reference cited in

Boruch et al. (2002). The only difference is that incorrect page numbers are given

here. Instead of correctly identifying the pages as 206-219, Petrosino et al.

(2001) identify pages 293-307.

Aside from the citations errors, one would hope that clarity about the

results of the graph would be found in the original citation. Is education fourth,

third or first in cumulative number of reports of randomized trials? The original

citation, Petrosino et al. (2000) does match the results of the graph in Petrosino

et al. (2001), but not the results of the graphs in Whitehurst (2002b) or Boruch et

al. (2002).The original source offers the following description for the chart:

 

 

Experimental Design 25

C2-SPECTR thus currently contains a total of 10,449 records. Figure 1

shows cumulative totals of reports of trials published between 1950 and

1998, subdivided on the basis of the „high level‟ codes which were

assigned to indicate the sphere(s) of intervention. (p. 211)

See Figure 4 for a visual explanation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 4. Diagram of citation errors. Deviations from original source are shown in

bold.

Examining the graphs, it is easy to see how these changes could have

been made inadvertently. Nonetheless, one has to consider the impact that these

errors may have had. Whitehurst‟s presentation was disseminated in “a series of

four regional meetings as part of its work to ensure the effective implementation

of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act” (U. S. Department of Education, 2002).

In addition, the Web of Science shows that this presentation was cited at least 6

cite

cite cites

Boruch et al. (2002)

1. Criminology

2. Psychology

3. Education

4. Social

 (p. 206-219)

Petrosino et al.

(2001) 1. Education

2. Psychology

3. Social

4. Criminology

 (p. 293-307)

Original Source

 

Petrosino et al.

(2000, p. 206-219)

1. Education

2. Psychology

3. Social

4. Criminology

Whitehurst (2002)

1. Criminology

2. Psychology

3. Social Policy

4. Education

 No page

number given

 (2001)

 

 

Experimental Design 26

times, Evidence Matters (Mosteller & Boruch, 2002) was cited at least 35 times,

and the original source (Petrosino et al., 2000) was cited 12 times with the

correct page number and 6 times with the incorrect page number which is given

in Petrosino et al. (2001).

Whitehurst‟s (2002b) presentation was described in a report by WestEd

titled Scientific Research and Evidence-Based Practice (Hood, 2003). Hood

gives the following description of the graph in Whitehurst‟s presentation:

22. Education Lags Behind Chart Description: This chart indicates the total

number of articles about randomized field trials in other areas of social

science research (criminology, social policy and psychology) has

steadily grown over the last 40 years; however, the number related to

education research has trailed behind. [By approximately 1996, the

cumulative number of articles about definite and possible randomized field

trials in criminology is approaching 6,000; the numbers in social policy

and psychology exceed 2,000; while the number for education is less than

1,000.] (p.22)

In addition, Whitehurst‟s presentation is identified as one of the Editor‟s Picks

under Proven Methods: Doing What Works within the NCLB page on the U.S.

Department of Education‟s Website (see

http://www.ed.gov/nclb/methods/whatworks/edpicks.jhtml). Colorado‟s

Department of Education has apparently incorporated Whitehurst‟s graph into

their Fast Facts: Evidence-Based Practice (2005). Perhaps because of

Whitehurst‟s position as the Director of the Institute of Education Sciences, or

 

 

Experimental Design 27

perhaps because of the wide dissemination of this presentation, citations alone

are not enough to measure the impact that his presentation has had.

Errors in scholarly reports are not new. Thompson (1988, 1994) examined

methodological mistakes in dissertations. Doctoral students and the prevalence

of documentation errors are discussed in a recent article where the authors give

several sources that address documentation errors in the literature such as

“citation errors (for example, non-compliance to the prescribed editorial style),

reference omissions, reference falsification, inconsistent references, inaccurate

quotations, misspelled names, incorrect page numbers, and even fraudulent

research” (Waytowich, Onwuegbuzie, & Jiao, 2006, p. 196). Mistakes will always

be present; it is up to the research community, and informed consumers to make

wise decisions regarding the worth of studies. There is no substitute for good

judgment.

Summary

While true experiments do have the potential to provide the best possible

causal evidence, it is imperative to keep in mind the threats that may undermine

confidence in the findings, from internal and external validity threats, to simple

human errors. In the wise words of Sackett and colleagues, the purpose of this

type of research is to inform, but not to replace individual practitioner‟s

knowledge (Sackett et al., 1996). This implies judgment on the part of the reader.

 

 

Experimental Design 28

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