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Erroneous analyses of interactions in neuroscience: a problem of significance

added Oct 5, 11, updated Sep 23, 14
most detailed summaries by Paul Ingraham


This research identified a major common problem in scientific papers. It was described by Ben Goldacre for The Guardian as “a stark statistical error so widespread it appears in about half of all the published papers surveyed from the academic neuroscience research literature.” Dr. Steven Novella also wrote about it for recently, adding that “there is no reason to believe that it is unique to neuroscience research or more common in neuroscience than in other areas of research.”

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article in a journal
Sander Nieuwenhuis, Birte U Forstmann, and Eric-Jan Wagenmakers
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Nat Neurosci


In theory, a comparison of two experimental effects requires a statistical test on their difference. In practice, this comparison is often based on an incorrect procedure involving two separate tests in which researchers conclude that effects differ when one effect is significant (P < 0.05) but the other is not (P> 0.05). We reviewed 513 behavioral, systems and cognitive neuroscience articles in five top-ranking journals (Science, Nature, Nature Neuroscience, Neuron and The Journal of Neuroscience) and found that 78 used the correct procedure and 79 used the incorrect procedure. An additional analysis suggests that incorrect analyses of interactions are even more common in cellular and molecular neuroscience. We discuss scenarios in which the erroneous procedure is particularly beguiling.

related content

“Why Most Published Research Findings Are False,” an article in PLoS Medicine, 2005.

One article on cites this paper as a source: