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, 5 (4), e10068

"Positive" Results Increase Down the Hierarchy of the Sciences


"Positive" Results Increase Down the Hierarchy of the Sciences

Daniele Fanelli. PLoS One.


The hypothesis of a Hierarchy of the Sciences with physical sciences at the top, social sciences at the bottom, and biological sciences in-between is nearly 200 years old. This order is intuitive and reflected in many features of academic life, but whether it reflects the "hardness" of scientific research--i.e., the extent to which research questions and results are determined by data and theories as opposed to non-cognitive factors--is controversial. This study analysed 2434 papers published in all disciplines and that declared to have tested a hypothesis. It was determined how many papers reported a "positive" (full or partial) or "negative" support for the tested hypothesis. If the hierarchy hypothesis is correct, then researchers in "softer" sciences should have fewer constraints to their conscious and unconscious biases, and therefore report more positive outcomes. Results confirmed the predictions at all levels considered: discipline, domain and methodology broadly defined. Controlling for observed differences between pure and applied disciplines, and between papers testing one or several hypotheses, the odds of reporting a positive result were around 5 times higher among papers in the disciplines of Psychology and Psychiatry and Economics and Business compared to Space Science, 2.3 times higher in the domain of social sciences compared to the physical sciences, and 3.4 times higher in studies applying behavioural and social methodologies on people compared to physical and chemical studies on non-biological material. In all comparisons, biological studies had intermediate values. These results suggest that the nature of hypotheses tested and the logical and methodological rigour employed to test them vary systematically across disciplines and fields, depending on the complexity of the subject matter and possibly other factors (e.g., a field's level of historical and/or intellectual development). On the other hand, these results support the scientific status of the social sciences against claims that they are completely subjective, by showing that, when they adopt a scientific approach to discovery, they differ from the natural sciences only by a matter of degree.

Conflict of interest statement

Competing Interests: The author has declared that no competing interests exist.


Figure 1
Figure 1. Positive Results by Discipline.
Name of discipline, abbreviation used throughout the paper, sample size and percentage of “positive” results (i.e. papers that support a tested hypothesis). Classification by discipline was based on the Essential Science Indicators database, the hard/soft, pure/applied and life/non-life categories were based on previous literature (see text for details). Error bars represent 95% logit-derived confidence interval.
Figure 2
Figure 2. Positive Results by Disciplinary Dimension.
Number of papers that supported (white) or failed to support (black) a tested hypothesis, classified by disciplinary categories based on dimensions identified by previous studies (see text for explanations). Percentage in each bar refers to positive results. OR = Odds Ratio (and 95%Confidence Interval) of reporting a positive result compared to the reference category of Hard/Pure disciplines. Chi square was calculated for each dimension separately (for category composition see Fig. 1).
Figure 3
Figure 3. Positive Results by Disciplinary Domain.
Percentage of papers that supported a tested hypothesis, classified by disciplinary domain. Blue = including only pure disciplines, Red = including only applied disciplines, Black = all disciplines included. Error bars represent 95% logit-derived confidence interval. For domain composition see Figure 4.
Figure 4
Figure 4. General Methodology by Discipline and by Domain.
Methodology employed by papers in different disciplines and domains. Methodological categories correspond to basic characteristics of the outcome: whether it measured physical/chemical parameters as opposed to behavioural parameters, and whether the object of study was non-biological, biological non-human, or biological human (see Methods for further details).
Figure 5
Figure 5. Positive Results by Methodological Category.
Percentage of papers that supported a tested hypothesis in pure (top) and applied (bottom) disciplines, plotted by general characteristics of their methodology (defined by the outcome, see also Fig. 4). The “other methodology” category is not shown. Black = studies on non-human material or subjects, Red = studies on human material or subjects. Error bars represent 95% logit-derived confidence interval.

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