A pre-registration is a detailed plan you create and file online before beginning your study, while a registered report is a manuscript that undergoes publication in two stages. Both are valuable steps in open science and eliminating unethical and questionable research practices (QRPs).
With pre-registration, you get a DOI that you can refer to in the final paper. When you submit a registered report, you can get guaranteed journal acceptance regardless of the results.
Both of these practices help science limit biases and increase transparency, and they’re also becoming the norm across many research fields today. But how does each one work? How can you use either pre-registration or a registered report for your study to enhance your research career?
Background of registration and pre-registration
Researchers to date may have enjoyed certain “degrees of freedom” during the research and reporting process. With no one looking over their shoulder, they could get away with it. For example, they might exclude outlier data if it changed their results. Or they may only present some, but not all, of their analyses in the final paper.
These practices aren’t necessarily ethical, nor do they benefit science as a whole, but they happen. When these decisions are made without prior justification, they can result in questionable research practices.
QRPs threaten scientific integrity. They include issues such as:
- Only selecting results that align with hypotheses, also known as “cherry-picking”
- Running different kinds of analyses on data until finally getting a significant result, also known as “p-hacking”
- Writing hypotheses after results are known, known as HARK-ing (Hypothesizing After Results are Known)
The dangers of QRPs are that they increase the chances of false positives or the chance of finding support for false hypotheses. In fact, one eye-opening estimate noted that nearly 85% of research funding in biomedical sciences is avoidably wasted, usually because of some type of QRP.
This has led to large-scale initiatives by the scientific community to limit these threats. Two ways to limit QRPs are through study pre-registration and registered reports. But what are these? How can you use these options to insulate your research and ensure no QRPs?
This table breaks down the main similarities and differences between the two:
What is pre-registration?
Pre-registration is a way of detailing, setting, and holding a research plan before starting your study. This includes writing what your hypotheses are, which specific methodologies you’ll use, and which analyses you’ll conduct. These are then set in stone to avoid any allegations of a QRP.
Your pre-registration is then registered to a public, open-access repository such as Open Science Framework (OSF) or BMJ Open. Once it’s registered, it becomes time-stamped and read-only so you can’t go back and change it later.
Pre-registration also encompasses other types of registrations, like protocol registration or clinical trial registration.
All of these registrations essentially mean documenting a plan before a study is conducted, for clarity and to avoid any QRP allegations or issues later. This pre-registration process extends to all research disiplines and includes the creation of an analysis plan, which may not always be included for a trial registration.
Pre-registration should also not be confused with a preprint. A preprint is essentially a complete, though preliminary, manuscript that’s shared on platforms like Research Square before it then goes through peer review, often via open platforms like Springer Nature’s In Review.
Posting a preprint on these open access platforms helps to increase discoverability of your paper before it’s been officially published and can also be cited as such.
Pre-registration, however, is the very first step of your project—done before you actually start it.
Which studies can be pre-registered?
Pre-registration is possible for any type of research, from experimental to qualitative studies, as well as systematic reviews. You can also pre-register a study for which you’re using existing or secondary data.
You can also pre-register research study protocols, but these usually only entail the specific steps and methodology that must be carried out in the study. In almost all cases, you should pre-register clinical trials; these may be submitted without an analysis plan and are required by the majority of reputable medical journals.
When can I pre-register?
You pre-register a study before you begin any type of data sampling. This could include experimental data collection, data synthesis for a meta-analysis, and data analysis of a pre-existing data set.
In some cases, you can still pre-register your study if you’ve already begun data collection. However, you must not have accessed the data before pre-registering. This means that if you started, you must not have seen or manipulated the data before pre-registering. This helps to avoid biases like seeing results and then changing your hypotheses to fit them. This is a good example of a QRP.
How can I pre-register?
Typically, researchers will use a pre-registration template available on their registry of choice to write the study plan. These templates can be tailored to any specific discipline, making the pre-registration process easier. See the Preregistration for Quantitative Research in Psychology Template (PRP-QUANT) for a good example.
These templates often differ in the detail needed for each section (such as methods, analysis, and results). It’s therefore up to researchers to ensure they specify all parts of their study in sufficient detail to benefit most from the pre-registration process.
This includes all details related to the specific hypotheses, variables, study design, and analysis plan. For instance, the type of variables you’ll assess and how they will be measured, how you’ll deal with any outliers in the data, which statistical analyses you’ll perform, and what you’ll do in case of significant or insignificant findings in your analysis.
A pre-registration must be specific and detailed enough so you can follow it step-by-step once you start data collection. It must also be precise enough so other researchers can replicate your study.
Think of it this way—the more detailed your pre-registration, the easier it will be for you and other researchers later to do the work. This will also make it easier to write your paper, present it to a journal at the submission stage, and ensure that it successfully passes the peer review process .
Where can I pre-register?
The registry to which you submit your registered report will depend on your research area. Each registry also contains the standardized pre-registration templates mentioned above as well as more specifics on what’s required to complete this step.
Each registry will also have a large database of submitted pre-registrations which you can look at as examples.
OSF and AsPredicted are the two largest general registries. These welcome pre-registrations from any discipline and research area.
For protocol registrations for systematic reviews with a health-related outcome, the main registry is PROSPERO . This registry includes disciplines such as health, welfare, public health, education, crime, and justice.
Clinical trials are usually recognized by the World Health Organization and are registered in the International Standard Randomized Controlled Trials Number (IRSCTN) Registry. These can encompass any clinical research study.
Similarly, pre-registrations for randomized controlled trials can also be submitted to the American Economic Association Registry for Randomized Controlled Trials (AEA RCT) . This registry includes disciplines from economic, political, and social sciences.
What happens after I pre-register?
When you’re all set detailing your research and analysis plan, you can submit your pre-registration on your chosen registry.
When you register on platforms like OSF, you’ll have the choice to make your registration public immediately and generate a DOI for your pre-registration. Then, your pre-registration remains on the registry cited as a record of your a priori decisions.
You can then use the registration DOI when referring to your pre-registration in the final paper. Additionally, you can also link your pre-registration to other resources related to your work. For instance, to supplementary materials or to an open-access repository where others can view your analysis scripts. You can do this directly through some registry platforms such as OSF.
As soon as your pre-registration is submitted to the registry, it becomes time-stamped or “frozen,” and can no longer be changed. From this point on, you can begin data collection or data anaysis and follow the exact steps you laid out in the pre-registration.
At the same time, it’s important to keep in mind that a pre-registration is a “plan not a prison .” You can still make changes to your study plan depending on what stage your project is in. If you want to add something to your existing pre-registration before data collection or data analysis has started, you can do so by creating a new pre-registration in the same steps as above. You can then either withdraw the old pre-registration or cite the old one in the update.
If you want to change your pre-registration once data analysis has started, however, this becomes tricky because we can’t say for certain if it is outcome-independent. Thus, changes at this point in the game should instead be labelled as additional or exploratory analyses in your final paper.
Additionally, any deviation from what you said you’d do in the pre-registration with what you actually did must be reported in the final paper as such. And you must have reasonable justification to do so. A reasonable justification is, for instance, if you had to change the analysis because the data did not satisfy key statistical assumptions.
Lastly, it is also important to note that even though a pre-registration is frozen on an open access platform such as OSF and receives a registration DOI, it is not subject to any peer review or critique.
What is a registered report?
A registered report is similar to pre-registration in that it’s a specific and detailed plan of how you will conduct your research. However, a registered report goes one step further and refers to the manuscript’s publication in two different stages.
In Stage 1 of a registered report, you write the introduction, hypotheses, methods, and analysis plan before your study is conducted. At this point, you submit the registered report manuscript to a journal accepting Stage 1 manuscripts. The manuscript then undergoes peer review just like any other article, and you can get either in-principle acceptance or rejection from the journal.
In in-principle acceptance, the journal agrees that your article can be published, assuming to carry out the plan as written. This guarantees that your article will be published regardless of the outcome of the results. The main idea here is that registered reports are reviewed on the basis of the importance of the research question and the rigor of the methodologies.
Once you obtain in-principle acceptance, you can begin conducting your study. Of course, you must adhere to the steps you laid out in the registered report without fail. Once the study is complete, you write up the results and conclusion section of the same registered report you submitted at Stage 1. Then, it’s sent in for Stage 2 review.
###Stage 2 In Stage 2, reviewers will check how closely you followed the study plan, which received in-principle acceptance. Any deviations from the original plan must be explained and justified in Stage 2. In case of major deviations, the registered report may be rejected.
The good news is that if your registered report is rejected at Stage 2, it can still be sent for publication to another journal as a regular manuscript.
In a way, a registered report is the same if you wrote a pre-registration which you then submitted for peer review before conducting the study. Like pre-registrations, you can follow the registered report templates from sources such as OSF.
Which studies can be submitted as a registered report?
Registered reports can also be submitted for most types of research. This includes experimental research, clinical trial protocols, and even qualitative research and meta-analyses.
Typically, registered reports will indicate the stage the registered report is in. It will say “Stage 1” or “Stage 2” in the heading. This helps to further increase transparency.
For example, this study is currently a Stage 1 registered report. You can tell because it is indicated at the top, and the study only contains the introduction, hypotheses, planned analyses.
Once the registered report receives in-principle acceptance from the journal, it will be considered a Stage 2. At Stage 2, the registered report will look like this study . It will additionally contain the results and conclusions.
Where can I submit a registered report?
Importantly, you have to submit the registered report to a journal that accepts them and check their requirements. For more information on journals accepting registered reports, consult the OSF hub for registered reports. On these platforms, you can also browse other registered reports for examples.
Also keep in mind that some journals will want ethics approval for your study. Thus, make sure you have that before submitting the registered report.
You can also submit a copy of your registered report on platforms like OSF at each different stage. Typically, researchers will upload their registered reports to the corresponding repository for their study containing study materials such as analysis codes.
How do pre-registrations and registered reports help science?
The primary goal of pre-registration and registered reports is transparency and openness about how research is conducted. By making your data and analysis scripts public, other researchers can download your data and perform their own analysis. This encourages reproducibility and replicability of findings, which can help solve the notorious “replication crisis ” occurring in many research fields.
Another main goal of both of these is to reduce QRPs. Stating exactly what you’ll do in your research and how you’ll do it helps limit biases such as selective reporting of outcomes or analyses because we can clearly compare what was planned initially with what was done.
Another main goal of pre-registration and registered reports is to differentiate between confirmatory hypotheses testing and exploratory analysis. This helps to encourage researchers not to present exploratory findings as if they were their hypotheses to begin with. This then controls for false positives.
Additionally, registered reports help reduce major problems in research such as publication bias. Publication bias is the notion that statistically significant studies are more likely to be published than statistically insignificant studies.
By giving a registered report in-principle acceptance at Stage 1, this means the paper will be published regardless of what the results turn out to be. This then encourages the publication of and attention to findings that aren’t “novel,” per se, but are just as important in science.
How do pre-registrations and registered reports help researchers?
While pre-registration and registered reports are valuable for science and limiting biases, they just as helpful to the researchers who carry out these studies.
Both require researchers to carefully consider and plan how they will conduct and analyze their study before doing it. By taking more time to carefully plan your research, you create sounder methodology and reasoning, which improves the quality of your study. This process also improves your skills as a researcher.
When you submit a Stage 1 registered report, you also get peer review at a time when you need it most—at the initial stages of the study design. This can help you fine tune and optimize your design and analysis plan early in the research process.
Plan your research, get registered, even post your preprint
At AJE, we offer many services to support these earlier stages, and later stages, of your research. Explore the full range of expert-led services here . And to post your preprint, visit our sister site Research Square .