computer out window 254x300 A Yale Professors One Man Rampage Against PloS, the Internet and a Belgian Research GroupJohn Bargh, a Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science at Yale University has written a blog post that’s currently receiving a thorough dressing down by the academic community. The title of the blog post, “Nothing in Their Heads” is a scathing ad-hom attack on a research group that failed  to replicate his research. The opening gambit is an attack on, well the entire academic community.

“Scientific integrity in the era of pay-as-you-go publications and superficial online science journalism.”

It’s like a lesson in how to alientate your audience. “Superficial online science journalism” apparently refers to Ed Yong’s critique of his research. Yong isn’t exactly a light weight, as well as his Discover magazine blog he writes for New Scientist and Nature and has a stack of awards for his quality of writing and integrity. Before writing his article Yong even requested Bargh’s opinion but Bargh refused to give it. Thereby explaining why Yong’s critique may be ever so slightly superficial in this instance (Update 11/03/08: Yong has now published a full reply to Bargh’s blog containing a reply from a member of the team that created the replication).

Bargh’s argument is tainted from the offset with a rambling attack on the most revered, open access, not for profit academic journal (PLoS), claiming because the replication was published there that it is “essentially self-published”. PLoS have replied in the comments clearly proving this attack to be completely factually deficit. It’s worth noting that the open access PLoS is by no means alone in charging it’s authors. A great proportion of leading journals are pay as you go publications” (as Bargh puts it) so this argument is invalid, not to mention weirdly juvenile coming from someone in Bargh’s position. The only difference is that other publishers that actually are profit making are just less up-front about charges, describing them as “colour” charges when there is often sod all printing going on. The Journal of Neuroscience for example charges $1000 per image (assuming you like your hard work portrayed in colour rather than appearing as something from the dark ages of Xerox). That’s on top of a $980 publication fee. By any standards PLoS is cheap relative to it’s competition, it even offers to waive the fee for any reason, no questions asked.

After you’ve waded through the school yard bullshit, if you’re still reading that is, the actual argument at hand is academic in the extreme (so I won’t paraphrase it here). If you take the time to read it, Bargh’s case is monumentally ironic. Besides the discussion on priming at hand, Bargh’s paper focuses on “rudeness” and “elderly stereotype”. It’s almost like Bargh is trying to parody himself as a rude old professor clinging on to a sinking ship, a casualty of post-publication review, open science and all the good things to come of it. You couldn’t make it up. If you do a search on Psych File Drawer you’ll discover this isn’t even the first failed replication attempt of Bargh’s experiment.

Psych Study replication 300x57 A Yale Professors One Man Rampage Against PloS, the Internet and a Belgian Research Group

Free database of psych studies and their replication status

To me this debate highlights an issue at the very heart of science that is often neglected in Psychology. Science gets interesting when science gets replicated.


Doyen S, Klein O, Pichon CL, & Cleeremans A (2012). Behavioral priming: it’s all in the mind, but whose mind? PloS one, 7 (1) PMID: 22279526

Bargh, J. Chen, M. Burrows, L. (1996). Automaticity of Social Behaviour: Direct Effects of Trait Construct and Stereotype Activation on Action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology :

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  • Neuroskeptic

    In fairness we should note that there have been positive replications too; he is well within his rights to criticize the Doyen study scientifically, but his criticisms of PLoS and the authors competence can only be described as a “rampage”, as you put it…

    • Matt

      His tone was completely off even in his scientific criticisms, not to mention that he was getting stuff wrong about *his own* study. He made some fair points, but when the goal is direct replication with only better blinding/data recording, not sure why the authors should have done some of what he said – maybe in follow-up studies it’d be good, but then suggest they do that instead of complaining they didn’t do it in the replication. It would just strengthen his whole argument if follow ups then went the way he predicted. Anyway, would like to see the positive replications – there are 2 linked in the comments but can’t get one of them and the other doesn’t seem to mention blinding. the concept is pretty well replicated, sure – not found many direct replications of the study itself, but may just be looking in the wrong places.

      Or maybe I should just get on with my own work… 🙂

  • Pete Etchells

    Great post. I really don’t understand why he took the failure to replicate so personally; I mean, it’s all part of science, isn’t it? Unless you absolutely believe that the result you’ve found is flawless…

    The other irony is that Bargh attacked PLoS for ‘lack of peer review/editorial scrutiny’ not by sending a response letter to the journal, but by posting on his blog.

  • Neurobonkers

    From my limited experience hidden charges can be absolutely shocking (I’ll email you the detail) but yes it’s wrong to say “most” if that might not be the case. I’ve changed the word to “great” instead.

    Something I was really glad to see you are looking in to is the hidden charges, the per-page fees and the “society sign ups” that cost hundreds of dollars quickly add up. I can say for a fact that I’ve seen colour and page charges for journals that have never been printed. Even at the conference only distributed using PDF’s on a USB. I’ve removed the word “online” though just to make clear there are journals that charge these fees and are still using paper. I presume that number is declining though so it’s certainly something well worth looking in to.

  • Anonymous

    He should change his name and move to Harvard.

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