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Variability in the analysis of a single neuroimaging dataset by many teams

To test the reproducibility and robustness of results obtained in the neuroimaging field, 70 independent teams of neuroimaging experts from across the globe were asked to analyze and interpret the same functional magnetic resonance imaging dataset.
The authors found that no two teams chose identical workflows to analyse the data – a consequence of the degrees of freedom and flexibility around the best suited analytical approaches.
This flexibility resulted in sizeable variation in the results of hypothesis tests, even for teams whose statistical maps were highly correlated at intermediate stages of the analysis pipeline. Variation in reported results was related to several aspects of analysis methodology. Notably, a meta-analytical approach that aggregated information across teams yielded a significant consensus in activated regions. Furthermore, prediction markets of researchers in the field revealed an overestimation of the likelihood of significant findings, even by researchers with direct knowledge of the dataset. These findings show that analytical flexibility can have substantial effects on scientific conclusions, and identify factors that may be related to variability in the analysis of functional magnetic resonance imaging. The results emphasize the importance of validating and sharing complex analysis workflows and the need for experts in the field to come together and discuss what minimum reporting standards are.
The most straightforward way to combat such (unintentional) degrees of freedom is to have detailed data processing and analysis protocols as part of the study plans. As this example illustrates, such protocols need to be checked by independent scientists to make sure that they are complete and unequivocal. While the imaging field is complex and data analysis cannot be described in one sentence, the need to have sufficiently detailed study plans is also a message to pre-registration platforms that should not impose any restrictions on the amount of information being pre-registered.

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