Why any researcher should start their career with a meta-analysis

If your ambition is to become a scientist and an expert in a specific research area one path is more efficient than many others. The one that we think will make you an expert quickest is the writing of a meta-analysis. This path is very different from one involving primary research, but it will allow you to answer many more questions that you could conceivably answer with a single experiment. We will provide three reasons why you should take the meta-analysis path. Yet if I still do not convince you, we hope the lessons one of us (Alessandro) is learning from his explorations in meta-analysis thus far will still be of use to you.

1) Meta analyses allow you to have a broad view of a phenomenon of interest

Have you ever tried to go to the top of a tower and look down? The view is much more complete from there; it allows you to have an overview that you wouldn’t have had from the ground. Doing an experimental study is kind of like looking from the ground: only the result of your own experiment will be visible to your eyes. Conducting a meta-analysis instead allows you to see other people’s experiments and approaches at once. Say for example that you are interested in studying how meditation can help reduce stress levels. If you conduct a randomized controlled trial you will only know about that specific treatment and only on one particular population of participants. By conducting a meta-analysis, instead, you hopefully get insight into whether 1) meditation is more effective on individuals with certain personality traits and 2) the effects of meditation can be extended to different populations, while you may also observe when 3) meditation is effective in reducing stress levels and when effects are null or small. 

image credit Timothy Chan

There is one observation from our own path that we can already share with you. As psychologists we should be interested in how different people respond to different manipulations. Does people’s anxiety in their attachments, for example, matter whether or not they benefit from mediation? Or is biofeedback more effective for younger or older people?  The fact of the matter is that psychologists often neglect to report detailed records of the populations they study. One of the recommendations that will surely make it into the meta-analysis that Alessandro is leading is that researchers need to keep detailed protocols (like we have recommended here). In that way,  meta-analysts can start using this information across many studies.

2) Meta analyses allow you to have information about the health of the literature of interest

A meta-analysis can teach important lessons even to those who have no intention of taking this path. It is not a secret that many sciences have been hit with a replication crisis, as many replication studies have failed to obtain the same results of original studies they sought to replicate (see, for psychology, Klein et al. 2018; Maxwell, Lau, & Howard, 2015; Open Science Collaboration, 2015). One likely reason for the replication crisis is publication bias (see e.g., Sutton, Duval, Tweedie, Abrams, & Jones, 2000). A primary goal of meta-analysis is thus to know how bad the problem actually is and how bad publication bias in that literature is. 

In some fields, such as medicine, knowing the real effectiveness of a drug directly impacts people’s lives. However, because of publication bias, assessing the risk-benefit ratio of particular types of drugs is not easy to estimate. As but one example, Turner et al. (2008)  analyzed the effects of 12 antidepressant agents on over 12 thousand people both in terms of the proportion of positive studies and the effect sizes associated with the use of this drug. According to the published literature 94% of the trials were positive. Yet after using techniques to account for publication bias, Turner et al. (2008) found out that the percentage dropped to 51% and that the effect size decreased to 32% of its original. 

Overestimating the effect of a drug has direct consequences on the choice of certain therapies which in turn impact on the health of a population (and we feel those consequences even more so now, in the midst of a health crisis). A meta-analytic approach can help us signal there is a problem in a literature due to publication bias. Some think that meta-analysis can provide a correction of the effect size by correcting for publication bias. The jury might still be out on this, as others say that even “meta-analysis is fucked”. Even if meta-analyses cannot provide accurate effect sizes, they can provide a snapshot of the health of a particular research field (e.g., by pointing to how many results are positive and what researchers record). Based on this report of health, solutions (like Registered Reports) can be recommended to researchers in that field. It may well be that if meta-analysts do not do their work and provide recommendations, meta-analyses remain fucked for a long time to come. 

3) Meta-analysis allows you to acquire skills important for your future career as a scientist 

This recommendation is primarily for the starting PhD student. Stephen King famously said: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that”, and there is nothing more true. Reading numerous articles is the key to very quickly becoming a more efficient and faster writer. When I (Alessandro) started my meta-analysis, I may have been shell-shocked by the sheer quantity of what I had to read. But not only did my vocabulary quickly improve, I also encountered many different writing styles. It allowed me to integrate expert writers’ writing styles into mine. What also helps as a beginning PhD student is that conducting a meta-analysis has taught me the importance of good reporting practices and the limitations of a single study. We think for example that the psychological literature vastly underreported important information. We will try to contribute to changes and  make protocols available for the researchers in our own literature and I will try my best not to repeat the same errors. 

Final considerations

We can certainly recommend walking the meta-analysis path. What we have learned so far is that scientists underreport and they need to create more detailed protocols to keep good records of their work. In addition – and we are stating the obvious here – meta-analyses confirm that publication bias is a considerable problem. Finally, the exercise of doing a meta-analysis is vital for any researcher: it improves one’s writing and the body of knowledge required for running solid experimental studies.

The path to become a better scientist is arduous. Conducting a careful meta-analysis is definitely one of the stages that could lead you to the top. We hope to have convinced you that if you start your research, a meta-analysis is a good path to walk on to ensure that you become a careful observer of the phenomena you study. 

This blog post was written by Alessandro Sparacio and Hans IJzerman.

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