Category Archives: Replicability Rankings

Are Most Published Results in Psychology False? An Empirical Study

Why Most Published Research Findings  are False by John P. A. Ioannidis

In 2005, John P. A. Ioannidis wrote an influential article with the title “Why Most Published Research Findings are False.” The article starts with the observation that “there is increasing concern that most current published research findings are false” (e124). Later on, however, the concern becomes a fact. “It can be proven that most claimed research findings are false” (e124). It is not surprising that an article that claims to have proof for such a stunning claim has received a lot of attention (2,199 citations and 399 citations in 2016 alone in Web of Science).

Most citing articles focus on the possibility that many or even more than half of all published results could be false. Few articles cite Ioannidis to make the factual statement that most published results are false, and there appears to be no critical examination of Ioannidis’s simulations that he used to support his claim.

This blog post shows that these simulations make questionable assumptions and shows with empirical data that Ioannidis’s simulations are inconsistent with actual data.

Critical Examination of Ioannidis’s Simulations

First, it is important to define what a false finding is. In many sciences, a finding is published when a statistical test produced a significant result (p < .05). For example, a drug trial may show a significant difference between a drug and a placebo control condition with a p-value of .02. This finding is then interpreted as evidence for the effectiveness of the drug.

How could this published finding be false? The logic of significance testing makes this clear. The only inference that is being made is that the population effect size (i.e., the effect size that could be obtained if the same experiment were repeated with an infinite number of participants) is different from zero and in the same direction as the one observed in the study. Thus, the claim that most significant results are false implies that in more than 50% of all published significant results the null-hypothesis was true. That is, a false positive result was reported.

Ioannidis then introduces the positive predictive value (PPV). The positive predictive value is the proportion of positive results (p < .05) that are true positives.

(1) PPV = TP/(TP + FP)

PTP = True Positive Results, FP = False Positive Results

The proportion of true positive results (TP) depends on the percentage of true hypothesis (PTH) and the probability of producing a significant result when a hypothesis is true. This probability is known as statistical power. Statistical power is typically defined as 1 minus the type-II error (beta).

(2) TP = PTH * Power = PTH * (1 – beta)

The probability of a false positive result depends on the proportion of false hypotheses (PFH) and the criterion for significance (alpha).

(3) FP = PFH * alpha

This means that the actual proportion of true significant results is a function of the ratio of true and false hypotheses (PTH:PFH), power, and alpha.

(4) PPV = (PTH*power) / ((PTH*power) + (PFH * alpha))

Ioannidis translates his claim that most published findings are false into a PPV below 50%. This would mean that the null-hypothesis is true in more than 50% of published results that falsely rejected it.

(5) (PTH*power) / ((PTH*power) + (PFH * alpha))  < .50

Equation (5) can be simplied to the inequality equation

(6) alpha > PTH/PFH * power

We can rearrange formula (6) and substitute PFH with (1-PHT) to determine the maximum proportion of true hypotheses to produce over 50% false positive results.

(7a)  =  alpha = PTH/(1-PTH) * power

(7b) = alpha*(1-PTH) = PTH * power

(7c) = alpha – PTH*alpha = PTH * power

(7d) =  alpha = PTH*alpha + PTH*power

(7e) = alpha = PTH(alpha + power)

(7f) =  alpha/(power + alpha) = PTH


Table 1 shows the results.

Power                  PTH / PFH             
90%                       5  / 95
80%                       6  / 94
70%                       7  / 93
60%                       8  / 92
50%                       9  / 91
40%                      11 / 89
30%                       14 / 86
20%                      20 / 80
10%                       33 / 67                     

Even if researchers would conduct studies with only 20% power to discover true positive results, we would only obtain more than 50% false positive results if only 20% of hypothesis were true. This makes it rather implausible that most published results could be false.

To justify his bold claim, Ioannidis introduces the notion of bias. Bias can be introduced due to various questionable research practices that help researchers to report significant results. The main effect of these practices is that the probability of a false positive result to become significant increases.

Simmons et al. (2011) showed that massive use several questionable research practices (p-hacking) can increase the risk of a false positive result from the nominal 5% to 60%. If we assume that bias is rampant and substitute the nominal alpha of 5% with an assumed alpha of 50%, fewer false hypotheses are needed to produce more false than true positives (Table 2).

Power                 PTH/PFH             
90%                     40 / 60
80%                     43 / 57
70%                     46 / 54
60%                     50 / 50
50%                     55 / 45
40%                     60 / 40
30%                     67 / 33
20%                     75 / 25
10%                      86 / 14                    

If we assume that bias inflates the risk of type-I errors from 5% to 60%, it is no longer implausible that most research findings are false. In fact, more than 50% of published results would be false if researchers tested hypothesis with 50% power and 50% of tested hypothesis are false.

However, the calculations in Table 2 ignore the fact that questionable research practices that inflate false positives also decrease the rate of false negatives. For example, a researcher who continues testing until a significant result is obtained, increases the chances of obtaining a significant result no matter whether the hypothesis is true or false.

Ioannidis recognizes this, but he assumes that bias has the same effect for true hypothesis and false hypothesis. This assumption is questionable because it is easier to produce a significant result if an effect exists than if no effect exists. Ioannidis’s assumption implies that bias increases the proportion of false positive results a lot more than the proportion of true positive results.

For example, if power is 50%, only 50% of true hypothesis produce a significant result. However, with a bias factor of .4, another 40% of the false negative results will become significant, adding another .4*.5 = 20% true positive results to the number of true positive results. This gives a total of 70% positive results, which is a 40% increase over the number of positive results that would have been obtained without bias. However, this increase in true positive results pales in comparison to the effect that 40% bias has on the rate of false positives. As there are 95% true negatives, 40% bias produces another .95*.40 = 38% of false positive results. So instead of 5% false positive results, bias increases the percentage of false positive results from 5% to 43%, an increase by 760%. Thus, the effect of bias on the PPV is not equal. A 40% increase of false positives has a much stronger impact on the PPV than a 40% increase of true positives. Ioannidis provides no rational for this bias model.

A bigger concern is that Ioannidis makes sweeping claims about the proportion of false published findings based on untested assumptions about the proportion of null-effects, statistical power, and the amount of bias due to questionable research practices.
For example, he suggests that 4 out of 5 discoveries in adequately powered (80% power) exploratory epidemiological studies are false positives (PPV = .20). To arrive at this estimate, he assumes that only 1 out of 11 hypotheses is true and that for every 1000 studies, bias adds only 1000* .30*.10*.20 = 6 true positives results compared to 1000* .30*.90*.95 = 265 false positive results (i.e., 44:1 ratio). The assumed bias turns a PPV of 62% without bias into a PPV of 20% with bias. These untested assumptions are used to support the claim that “simulations show that for most study designs and settings, it is more likely for a research claim to be false than true.” (e124).

Many of these assumptions can be challenged. For example, statisticians have pointed out that the null-hypothesis is unlikely to be true in most studies (Cohen, 1994). This does not mean that all published results are true, but Ioannidis’ claims rest on the opposite assumption that most hypothesis are a priori false. This makes little sense when the a priori hypothesis is specified as a null-effect and even a small effect size is sufficient for a hypothesis to be correct.

Ioannidis also ignores attempts to estimate the typical power of studies (Cohen, 1962). At least in psychology, the typical power is estimated to be around 50%. As shown in Table 2, even massive bias would still produce more true than false positive results, if the null-hypothesis is false in no more than 50% of all statistical tests.

In conclusion, Ioannidis’s claim that most published results are false depends heavily on untested assumptions and cannot be considered a factual assessment of the actual number of false results in published journals.

Testing Ioannidis’s Simulations

10 years after the publication of “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False,”  it is possible to put Ioannidis’s simulations to an empirical test. Powergraphs (Schimmack, 2015) can be used to estimate the average replicability of published test results. For this purpose, each test statistic is converted into a z-value. A powergraph is foremost a histogram of z-values. The distribution of z-values provides information about the average statistical power of published results because studies with higher power produce higher z-values.

Figure 1 illustrates the distribution of z-values that is expected for Ioanndis’s model for “adequately powered exploratory epidemiological study” (Simulation 6 in Figure 4). Ioannidis assumes that for every true positive, there are 10 false positives (R = 1:10). He also assumed that studies have 80% power to detect a true positive. In addition, he assumed 30% bias.


A 30% bias implies that for every 100 false hypotheses, there would be 33 (100*[.30*.95+.05]) rather than 5 false positive results (.95*.30+.05)/.95). The effect on false negatives is much smaller (100*[.30*.20 + .80]). Bias was modeled by increasing the number of attempts to produce a significant result so that proportion of true and false hypothesis matched the predicted proportions. Given an assumed 1:10 ratio of true to false hypothesis, the ratio is 335 false hypotheses to 86 true hypotheses. The simulation assumed that researchers tested 100,000 false hypotheses and observed 35000 false positive results and that they tested 10,000 true hypotheses and observed 8,600 true positive results. Bias was simulated by increasing the number of tests to produce the predicted ratio of true and false positive results.

Figure 1 only shows significant results because only significant results would be reported as positive results. Figure 1 shows that a high proportion of z-values are in the range between 1.95 (p = .05) and 3 (p = .001). Powergraphs use z-curve (Schimmack & Brunner, 2016) to estimate the probability that an exact replication study would replicate a significant result. In this simulation, this probability is a mixture of false positives and studies with 80% power. The true average probability is 20%. The z-curve estimate is 21%. Z-curve can also estimate the replicability for other sets of studies. The figure on the right shows replicability for studies that produced an observed z-score greater than 3 (p < .001). The estimate shows an average replicability of 59%. Thus, researchers can increase the chance of replicating published findings by adjusting the criterion value and ignoring significant results with p-values greater than p = .001, even if they were reported as significant with p < .05.

Figure 2 shows the distribution of z-values for Ioannidis’s example of a research program that produces more true than false positives, PPV = .85 (Simulation 1 in Table 4).


Visual inspection of Figure 1 and Figure 2 is sufficient to show that a robust research program produces a dramatically different distribution of z-values. The distribution of z-values in Figure 2 and a replicability estimate of 67% are impossible if most of the published significant results were false.  The maximum value that could be obtained is obtained with a PPV of 50% and 100% power for the true positive results, which yields a replicability estimate of .05*.50 + 1*.50 = 55%. As power is much lower than 100%, the real maximum value is below 50%.

The powergraph on the right shows the replicability estimate for tests that produced a z-value greater than 3 (p < .001). As only a small proportion of false positives are included in this set, z-curve correctly estimates the average power of these studies as 80%. These examples demonstrate that it is possible to test Ioannidis’s claim that most published (significant) results are false empirically. The distribution of test results provides relevant information about the proportion of false positives and power. If actual data are more similar to the distribution in Figure 1, it is possible that most published results are false positives, although it is impossible to distinguish false positives from false negatives with extremely low power. In contrast, if data look more like those in Figure 2, the evidence would contradict Ioannidis’s bold and unsupported claim that most published results are false.

The maximum replicabiltiy that could be obtained with 50% false-positives would require that the true positive studies have 100% power. In this case, replicability would be .50*.05 + .50*1 = 52.5%.  However, 100% power is unrealistic. Figure 3 shows the distribution for a scenario with 90% power and 100% bias and an equal percentage of true and false hypotheses. The true replicabilty for this scenario is .05*.50 + .90 * .50 = 47.5%. z-curve slightly overestimates replicabilty and produced an estimate of 51%.  Even 90% power is unlikely in a real set of data. Thus, replicability estimates above 50% are inconsistent with Ioannidis’s hypothesis that most published positive results are false.  Moreover, the distribution of z-values greater than 3 is also informative. If positive results are a mixture of many false positive results and true positive results with high power, the replicabilty estimate for z-values greater than 3 should be high. In contrast, if this estimate is not much higher than the estimate for all z-values, it suggest that there is a high proportion of studies that produced true positive results with low power.


Empirical Evidence

I have produced powergraphs and replicability estimates for over 100 psychology journals (2015 Replicabilty Rankings). Not a single journal produced a replicability estimate below 50%. Below are a few selected examples.

The Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition publishes results from cognitive psychology. In 2015, a replication project (OSC, 2015) demonstrated that 50% of significant results produced a significant result in a replication study. It is unlikely that all non-significant results were false positives. Thus, the results show that Ioannidis’s claim that most published results are false does not apply to results published in this journal.

Powergraphs for JEP-LMC3.g

The powergraphs further support this conclusion. The graphs look a lot more like Figure 2 than Figure 1 and the replicability estimate is even higher than the one expected from Ioannidis’s simulation with a PPV of 85%.

Another journal that was subjected to replication attempts was Psychological Science. The success rate for Psychological Science was below 50%. However, it is important to keep in mind that a non-significant result in a replication study does not prove that the original result was a false positive. Thus, the PPV could still be greater than 50%.

Powergraphs for PsySci3.g

The powergraph for Psychological Science shows more z-values in the range between 2 and 3 (p > .001). Nevertheless, the replicability estimate is comparable to the one in Figure 2 which simulated a high PPV of 85%. Closer inspection of the results published in this journal would be required to determine whether a PPV below .50 is plausible.

The third journal that was subjected to a replication attempt was the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The journal has three sections, but I focus on the Attitude and Social Cognition section because many replication studies were from this section. The success rate of replication studies was only 25%. However, there is controversy about the reason for this high number of failed replications and once more it is not clear what percentage of failed replications were due to false positive results in the original studies.

Powergraphs for JPSP-ASC3.g

One problem with the journal rankings is that they are based on automated extraction of all test results. Ioannidis might argue that his claim focused only on test results that tested an original, novel, or an important finding, whereas articles also often report significance tests for other effects. For example, an intervention study may show a strong decrease in depression, when only the interaction with treatment is theoretically relevant.

I am currently working on powergraphs that are limited to theoretically important statistical tests. These results may show lower replicability estimates. Thus, it remains to be seen how consistent Ioannidis’s predictions are for tests of novel and original hypotheses. Powergraphs provide a valuable tool to address this important question.

Moreover, powergraphs can be used to examine whether science is improving. So far, powergraphs of psychology journals have shown no systematic improvement in response to concerns about high false positive rates in published journals. The powergraphs for 2016 will be published soon. Stay tuned.



Replicability Ranking of Psychology Departments

Evaluations of individual researchers, departments, and universities are common and arguably necessary as science is becoming bigger. Existing rankings are based to a large extent on peer-evaluations. A university is ranked highly if peers at other universities perceive it to produce a steady stream of high-quality research. At present the most widely used objective measures rely on the quantity of research output and on the number of citations. These quantitative indicators of research quality work are also heavily influenced by peers because peer-review controls what gets published, especially in journals with high rejection rates, and peers decide what research they cite in their own work. The social mechanisms that regulate peer-approval are unavoidable in a collective enterprise like science that does not have a simple objective measure of quality (e.g., customer satisfaction ratings, or accident rates of cars). Unfortunately, it is well known that social judgments are subject to many biases due to conformity pressure, self-serving biases, confirmation bias, motivated biases, etc. Therefore, it is desirable to complement peer-evaluations with objective indicators of research quality.

Some aspects of research quality are easier to measure than others. Replicability rankings focus on one aspect of research quality that can be measured objectively, namely the replicability of a published significant result. In many scientific disciplines such as psychology, a successful study reports a statistically significant result. A statistically significant result is used to minimize the risk of publishing evidence for an effect that does not exist (or even goes in the opposite direction). For example, a psychological study that shows effectiveness of a treatment for depression would have to show that the effect in the study reveals a real effect that can be observed in other studies and in real patients if the treatment is used for the treatment of depression.

In a science that produces thousands of results a year, it is inevitable that some of the published results are fluke findings (even Toyota’s break down sometimes). To minimize the risk of false results entering the literature, psychology like many other sciences, adopted a 5% error rate. By using a 5% as the criterion, psychologists ensured that no more than 5% of results are fluke findings. With thousands of results published in each year, this still means that more than 50 false results enter the literature each year. However, this is acceptable because a single study does not have immediate consequences. Only if these results are replicated in other studies, findings become the foundation of theories and may influence practical decisions in therapy or in other applications of psychological findings (at work, in schools, or in policy). Thus, to outside observers it may appear safe to trust published results in psychology and to report about these findings in newspaper articles, popular books, or textbooks.

Unfortunately, it would be a mistake to interpret a significant result in a psychology journal as evidence that the result is probably true.  The reason is that the published success rate in journals has nothing to do with the actual success rate in psychological laboratories. All insiders know that it is common practice to report only results that support a researcher’s theory. While outsiders may think of scientists as neutral observers (judges), insiders play the game of lobbyist, advertisers, and self-promoters. The game is to advance one’s theory, publish more than others, get more citations than others, and win more grant money than others. Honest reporting of failed studies does not advance this agenda. As a result, the fact that psychological studies report nearly exclusively success stories (Sterling, 1995; Sterling et al., 1995) tells outside observers nothing about the replicability of a published finding and the true rate of fluke findings could be 100%.

This problem has been known for over 50 years (Cohen, 1962; Sterling, 1959). So it would be wrong to call the selective reporting of successful studies an acute crisis. However, what changed is that some psychologists have started to criticize the widely accepted practice of selective reporting of successful studies (Asendorpf et al., 2012; Francis, 2012; Simonsohn et al., 2011; Schimmack, 2012; Wagenmakers et al., 2011). Over the past five years, psychologists, particularly social psychologists, have been engaged in heated arguments over the so-called “replication crisis.”

One group argues that selective publishing of successful studies occurred, but without real consequences on the trustworthiness of published results. The other group argues that published results cannot be trusted unless they have been successfully replicated. The problem is that neither group has objective information about the replicability of published results.  That is, there is no reliable estimate of the percentage of studies that would produce a significant result again, if a representative sample of significant results published in psychology journals were replicated.

Evidently, it is not possible to conduct exact replication studies of all studies that have been published in the past 50 years. Fortunately, it is not necessary to conduct exact replication studies to obtain an objective estimate of replicability. The reason is that replicability of exact replication studies is a function of the statistical power of studies (Sterling et al., 1995). Without selective reporting of results, a 95% success rate is an estimate of the statistical power of the studies that achieved this success rate. Vice versa, a set of studies with average power of 50% is expected to produce a success rate of 50% (Sterling, et al., 1995).

Although selection bias renders success rates uninformative, the actual statistical results provide valuable information that can be used to estimate the unbiased statistical power of published results. Although selection bias inflates effect sizes and power, Brunner and Schimmack (forcecoming) developed and validated a method that can correct for selection bias. This method makes it possible to estimate the replicability of published significant results on the basis of the original reported results. This statistical method was used to estimate the replicabilty of research published by psychology departments in the years from 2010 to 2015 (see Methodology for details).

The averages for the 2010-2012 period (M = 59) and the 2013-2015 period (M = 61) show only a small difference, indicating that psychologists have not changed their research practices in accordance with recommendations to improve replicability in 2011  (Simonsohn et al., 2011). For most of the departments the confidence intervals for the two periods overlap (see attached powergraphs). Thus, the more reliable average across all years is used for the rankings, but the information for the two time periods is presented as well.

There are no obvious predictors of variability across departments. Private universities are at the top (#1, #2, #8), the middle (#24, #26), and at the bottom (#44, #47). European universities can also be found at the top (#4, #5), middle (#25) and bottom (#46, #51). So are Canadian universities (#9, #15, #16, #18, #19, #50).

There is no consensus on an optimal number of replicability.  Cohen recommended that researchers should plan studies with 80% power to detect real effects. If 50% of studies tested real effects with 80% power and the other 50% tested a null-hypothesis (no effect = 2.5% probability to replicate a false result again), the estimated power for significant results would be 78%. The effect on average power is so small because most of the false predictions produce a non-significant result. As a result, only a few studies with low replication probability dilute the average power estimate. Thus, a value greater than 70 can be considered broadly in accordance with Cohen’s recommendations.

It is important to point out that the estimates are very optimistic estimates of the success rate in actual replications of theoretically important effects. For a representative set of 100 studies (OSC, Science, 2015), Brunner and Schimmack’s statistical approach predicted a success rate of 54%, but the success rate in actual replication studies was only 37%. One reason for this discrepancy could be that the statistical approach assumes that the replication studies are exact, but actual replications always differ in some ways from the original studies, and this uncontrollable variability in experimental conditions posses another challenge for replicability of psychological results.  Before further validation research has been completed, the estimates can only be used as a rough estimate of replicability. However, the absolute accuracy of estimates is not relevant for the relative comparison of psychology departments.

And now, without further ado, the first objective rankings of 51 psychology departments based on the replicability of published significant results. More departments will be added to these rankings as the results become available.

Rank University 2010-2015 2010-2012 2013-2015
1 U Penn 72 69 75
2 Cornell U 70 67 72
3 Purdue U 69 69 69
4 Tilburg U 69 71 66
5 Humboldt U Berlin 67 68 66
6 Carnegie Mellon 67 67 67
7 Princeton U 66 65 67
8 York U 66 63 68
9 Brown U 66 71 60
10 U Geneva 66 71 60
11 Northwestern U 65 66 63
12 U Cambridge 65 66 63
13 U Washington 65 70 59
14 Carleton U 65 68 61
15 Queen’s U 63 57 69
16 U Texas – Austin 63 63 63
17 U Toronto 63 65 61
18 McGill U 63 72 54
19 U Virginia 63 61 64
20 U Queensland 63 66 59
21 Vanderbilt U 63 61 64
22 Michigan State U 62 57 67
23 Harvard U 62 64 60
24 U Amsterdam 62 63 60
25 Stanford U 62 65 58
26 UC Davis 62 57 66
27 UCLA 61 61 61
28 U Michigan 61 63 59
29 Ghent U 61 58 63
30 U Waterloo 61 65 56
31 U Kentucky 59 58 60
32 Penn State U 59 63 55
33 Radboud U 59 60 57
34 U Western Ontario 58 66 50
35 U North Carolina Chapel Hill 58 58 58
36 Boston University 58 66 50
37 U Mass Amherst 58 52 64
38 U British Columbia 57 57 57
39 The University of Hong Kong 57 57 57
40 Arizona State U 57 57 57
41 U Missouri 57 55 59
42 Florida State U 56 63 49
43 New York U 55 55 54
44 Dartmouth College 55 68 41
45 U Heidelberg 54 48 60
46 Yale U 54 54 54
47 Ohio State U 53 58 47
48 Wake Forest U 51 53 49
49 Dalhousie U 50 45 55
50 U Oslo 49 54 44
51 U Kansas 45 45 44



Replicability Ranking of 27 Psychology Journals (2015)

Click on this link to see the latest rankings for over 100 Psychology Journals for 2015.

The replicability rankings below are based on post-hoc power analyses of published results. The method is explained in more detail elsewhere.  More detailed results and time trends can be found by clicking on the hyperlink of a journal.  The ranking for the average replicability score in 2010-2014 and 2015 is r = .66, indicating that there are reliable differences in replicability between journals.  Movements by more than 10 percentage points are marked with an arrow.

Rank Journal Area 2010-2014 2015 Grade
1 Developmental Psychology DEV 0.63 0.76 B↑
2 Cognitive Psychology COG 0.72 0.74 B
3 JEP: Human Percpetion and Performance COG 0.72 0.71 B
4 Judgment and Decision Making COG 0.66 0.70 B
5 J. Experimental Psych: Learning, Memory, Cognition COG 0.69 0.70 B-
6 JPSP: Personality Process & Individual Differences PER 0.56 0.70 B↑
7 Journal of Memory & Language COG 0.67 0.69 C
8 Social Psychology Personality Science SOC 0.51 0.68 C↑
9 Journal of Experimental Psychology: General GEN 0.63 0.67 C
10 Cognition & Emotion EMO 0.64 0.67 C
11 Social Psychology SOC 0.61 0.66 C
12 Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology GEN 0.69 0.65 C
13 Journal of Positive Psychology GEN 0.53 0.63 C
14 Psychology and Aging DEV 0.67 0.59 D
15 Child Development DEV 0.63 0.58 D
16 Journal of Experimental Social Psychology SOC 0.48 0.55 D
17 Psychological Science GEN 0.56 0.54 D
18 Developmental Science DEV 0.58 0.53 D
19 European Journal of Social Psychology SOC 0.55 0.52 D
20 Emotion EMO 0.61 0.52 D↓
21 Personal Relationships SOC 0.52 0.52 D
22 JPSP: Attitude & Social Cognition SOC 0.51 0.51 D
23 JPSP:Interpersonal Relationships & Group Processes SOC 0.48 0.50 D
24 British Journal of Social Psychology SOC 0.48 0.50 D
25 Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin SOC 0.50 0.46 F
26 Journal of Social & Personal Relationships SOC 0.56 0.39 F
27 Social Cognition SOC 0.54 0.35 F