Back to Basics — Trusting Whether and How The Data are Collected and Coded

This is a tangential response to the lacour and #lacourgate hubbub (with hats off to the summaries and views given here and here). While he is not implicated in all of the comments, below, I am mostly certainly indebted to Mike Frick for planting the seed of some of the ideas presented below, particularly on member-checking (hopefully our under-review paper on the same will be out sometime in the future…). Salifu Amidu and Abubakari Bukari are similarly motivational-but-not-implicated, as are Corrina Moucheraud, Shagun Sabarwal and Urmy Shukla.

To a large extent, the lacour response is bringing a new angle on an increasingly familiar concern: trusting the analysis. This means additional (and important) calls for replication and other forms of post-publication peer review (as Broockman calls for) as a guard against significance-hungry, nefarious researchers. Pre-analysis plans, analytic/internal replications, and so on, are all important steps towards research transparency. But they miss the fundamental tendency to treat data as ‘true’ once it makes it into the familiar, rectangular format of a spreadsheet.

Given lacour, it seems clear that we may need to take an additional step back to get into the heart of research: the data. We place a lot of trust in data themselves — between advisers and advisees, between research collaborators, and between producers and users of large, public data sets. and, in turn, between PIs and research assistants and the actual team collecting the data. This trust is about, of course, whether the data exist at all and whether they measure what they purport to measure. (Green seems to have had a hunch about this?)

We should be clear about the foundations of this trust and what we might do to strengthen it. Ultimately, the lacour story is a story about the production of data, not its analysis. The transparency agenda needs to expand accordingly, to address the fundamental constancy that ‘shit in leads to shit out.’

Here’s a few thoughts:

  • Start to teach data collection like it matters. Survey design and data collection are weirdly absent from many graduate programs — even those oriented towards research. You may pick these up in electives but they are rarely required, to my knowledge. Learning about construct validity, validating test instruments in new contexts, questionnaire design, the potential for interview effects, some of the murky and inchoate contents of the activity labelled as ‘formative work*,’ etc, need not be re-discovered by each new graduate student or research assistant who takes on field work. If a course-work model won’t work, then a much more explicit apprenticeship model should be sought for those pursuing primary empirical work. in terms of teaching, one occasionally might be forgiven for thinking that impact evaluators had discovered data collection and that there aren’t mounds of resources on household surveys, psychometric’s, and questionnaire design that can be used to better ensure the quality and truthfulness of the data being collected. Interdisciplinary work needs to start with what and by what means and measures data are collected to answer a particular question.
  • Report on data quality practices. Lots of survey firms and researchers employee strategies such as data audits and back-checks. Good on you. Report it. This almost never makes it into actual publications but these are not just internal operations processes. Researchers do need to put forth some effort to make their readers trust their data as well as their analysis but so much less work seems to go into this. With the rise of empirical work in economics in other fields, this needs to be given more documented attention. If you threw out 5% of your data because of failed back-checks, tell me about it. I’d believe the remaining 95% of your data a lot more. The onus is on the researchers to make the reader trust their data.
  • Treat surveyors as a valuable source of information. It is increasingly common to at least have surveyors fill a question at the end of questionnaire about whether the respondent was cooperative (usually a Likert scale item) or other brief reflection on how the interview went. I have no idea what happens to responses to the data so produced — if they are used to throw out or deferentially weight responses, do please tell the reader about it. Moreover, you can systematically ask your surveyors questions (including anonymously) about question items that they don’t trust. For example, I asked (in written form) this question of surveyors and most reported that it was incredibly embarrassing for them to ask their elders to play certain memory games related to short-term recall. This might be a good sign to tread lightly with those data, if not discount them completely (whether or not the surveyors faithfully asked the embarrassing question, it still suggests that it created a tense social interaction that may not have generated trustworthy data, even if it didn’t fall in the traditional space of ‘sensitive questions.’). If nothing else, the surveyors’ assessments may be given as part of the ‘methods’ or ‘results’ attended to in publications. And, in general, remembering that surveys are human interactions, not matrix populators, is important.
  • Member-check. Member-checking is a process described by Lincoln and Guba (and others) that involves taking results and interpretations back to those surveyed to test interpretative hypotheses, etc. if some results really fly in the face of expectations, this process could generate some ‘red flags’ about which results and interpretations should be treated with care. And these can be reported to readers.
  • Coding. As with ‘formative work,’ the nuances of ‘we coded the open-ended data’ is often opaque, though this is where a lot of the interpretive magic happens. This is an important reason for the internal replication agenda to start with the raw data. In plenty of fields, it would be standard practice to use two independent coders and to report on inter-rater reliability. This does not seem to be standard practice in much of impact evaluation. This should change.
  • Check against other data-sets. It would not take much time for researchers to put into context their own findings by comparing (as part of a publication) the distribution of results on key questions to the distribution from large data-sets (especially when some questionnaire items are designed to mimic the dhs, lsms, or other large public data-sets for precisely this reason). This is not reported often enough. This does not mean that the large, population-linked data-set will always trump your project-linked data-set but it seems only fair to alert your readers to key differences, for the purposes of internal believability as well as external validity.
  • Compare findings with findings from studies on similar topics (in similar contexts) — across disciplines. Topics and findings do not end with the boundaries of a particular method of inquiry. Placing the unexpectedness of your findings within this wider array of literature would help.
  • Treat all types of data with similar rigor and respect. (Cue broken record.) If researchers are going to take such care with quantitative data and then stick in a random quote as anec-data in the analysis without giving any sense of where it came from or whether it should be taken as representative of the entire sample or some sub-group… well, it’s just a bit odd. However you want to label these different types of data — quant and qual or data-set-observations and causal-process observations — they are empirical data and should be treated with the highest standards known in each field of inquiry.

I can’t assess whether any of these measures, singly or together, would have made a major difference in the lacour case — especially since it remains nebulous how the data were generated, let alone with what care. But the lacour case reveals that we need to be more careful. A big-name researcher was willing to trust that the data themselves were real and collected to the best of another researcher’s ability — and focused on getting the analysis right. In turn, other researchers bought into both the analysis and the underlying data because of the big-name researcher. This suggests we need to do a bit more to establish trust in the data themselves — and that the onus for this is on the researchers — big names or no — claiming to have led the data collection and cleaning processes. This is especially true given the unclear role for young researchers as potential replicators and debunkers, highlighted here. I hope the transparency agenda steps up accordingly.

*If on occasion a researcher reported on what happened during the ‘formative phase’ and about how the ‘questionnaire was changed in response,’ that would be really interesting learning for all of us. Report it. Also, if you are planning to do ‘qualitative formative work’ to improve your questionnaire, it would be good if you built in time in your research timeline to actually analyze the data produced by that work, report on that analysis, and explain how the analysis led to changing certain questionnaire items…

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