Why is Replication in Research Important?

  • Article
  • Research Process

Replication in research is important because it allows for the verification and validation of study findings, building confidence in their reliability and generalizability. It also fosters scientific progress by promoting the discovery of new evidence, expanding understanding, and challenging existing theories or claims.

Updated on June 30, 2023

researchers replicating a study

Often viewed as a cornerstone of science, replication builds confidence in the scientific merit of a study’s results. The philosopher Karl Popper argued that, “we do not take even our own observations quite seriously, or accept them as scientific observations, until we have repeated and tested them.”

As such, creating the potential for replication is a common goal for researchers. The methods section of scientific manuscripts is vital to this process as it details exactly how the study was conducted. From this information, other researchers can replicate the study and evaluate its quality.

This article discusses replication as a rational concept integral to the philosophy of science and as a process validating the continuous loop of the scientific method. By considering both the ethical and practical implications, we may better understand why replication is important in research.

What is replication in research?

As a fundamental tool for building confidence in the value of a study’s results, replication has power. Some would say it has the power to make or break a scientific claim when, in reality, it is simply part of the scientific process, neither good nor bad.

When Nosek and Errington propose that replication is a study for which any outcome would be considered diagnostic evidence about a claim from prior research, they revive its neutrality. The true purpose of replication, therefore, is to advance scientific discovery and theory by introducing new evidence that broadens the current understanding of a given question.

Why is replication important in research?

The great philosopher and scientist, Aristotle, asserted that a science is possible if and only if there are knowable objects involved. There cannot be a science of unicorns, for example, because unicorns do not exist. Therefore, a ‘science’ of unicorns lacks knowable objects and is not a ‘science’.

This philosophical foundation of science perfectly illustrates why replication is important in research. Basically, when an outcome is not replicable, it is not knowable and does not truly exist. Which means that each time replication of a study or a result is possible, its credibility and validity expands.

The lack of replicability is just as vital to the scientific process. It pushes researchers in new and creative directions, compelling them to continue asking questions and to never become complacent. Replication is as much a part of the scientific method as formulating a hypothesis or making observations.

Types of replication

Historically, replication has been divided into two broad categories: 

  1. Direct replication: performing a new study that follows a previous study’s original methods and then comparing the results. While direct replication follows the protocols from the original study, the samples and conditions, time of day or year, lab space, research team, etc. are necessarily different. In this way, a direct replication uses empirical testing to reflect the prevailing beliefs about what is needed to produce a particular finding.
  2. Conceptual replication: performing a study that employs different methodologies to test the same hypothesis as an existing study. By applying diverse manipulations and measures, conceptual replication aims to operationalize a study’s underlying theoretical variables. In doing so, conceptual replication promotes collaborative research and explanations that are not based on a single methodology.

Though these general divisions provide a helpful starting point for both conducting and understanding replication studies, they are not polar opposites. There are nuances that produce countless subcategories such as:

  • Internal replication: when the same research team conducts the same study while taking negative and positive factors into account
  • Microreplication: conducting partial replications of the findings of other research groups
  • Constructive replication: both manipulations and measures are varied
  • Participant replication: changes only the participants

Many researchers agree these labels should be confined to study design, as direction for the research team, not a preconceived notion. In fact, Nosek and Errington conclude that distinctions between “direct” and “conceptual” are at least irrelevant and possibly counterproductive for understanding replication and its role in advancing knowledge.

How do researchers replicate a study?

Like all research studies, replication studies require careful planning. The Open Science Framework (OSF) offers a practical guide which details the following steps:

  • Identify a study that is feasible to replicate given the time, expertise, and resources available to the research team.
  • Determine and obtain the materials used in the original study.
  • Develop a plan that details the type of replication study and research design intended.
  • Outline and implement the study’s best practices.
  • Conduct the replication study, analyze the data, and share the results.

These broad guidelines are expanded in Brown’s and Wood’s article, “Which tests not witch hunts: a diagnostic approach for conducting replication research.” Their findings are further condensed by Brown into a blog outlining four main procedural categories:

  1. Assumptions: identifying the contextual assumptions of the original study and research team
  2. Data transformations: using the study data to answer questions about data transformation choices by the original team
  3. Estimation: determining if the most appropriate estimation methods were used in the original study and if the replication can benefit from additional methods
  4. Heterogeneous outcomes: establishing whether the data from an original study lends itself to exploring separate heterogeneous outcomes

At the suggestion of peer reviewers from the e-journal Economics, Brown elaborates with a discussion of what not to do when conducting a replication study that includes:

  • Do not use critiques of the original study’s design as  a basis for replication findings.
  • Do not perform robustness testing before completing a direct replication study.
  • Do not omit communicating with the original authors, before, during, and after the replication.
  • Do not label the original findings as errors solely based on different outcomes in the replication.

Again, replication studies are full blown, legitimate research endeavors that acutely contribute to scientific knowledge. They require the same levels of planning and dedication as any other study.

What happens when replication fails?

There are some obvious and agreed upon contextual factors that can result in the failure of a replication study such as: 

  • The detection of unknown effects
  • Inconsistencies in the system
  • The inherent nature of complex variables
  • Substandard research practices
  • Pure chance

While these variables affect all research studies, they have particular impact on replication as the outcomes in question are not novel but predetermined.

The constant flux of contexts and variables makes assessing replicability, determining success or failure, very tricky. A publication from the National Academy of Sciences points out that replicability is obtaining consistent, not identical, results across studies aimed at answering the same scientific question. They further provide eight core principles that are applicable to all disciplines.

While there is no straightforward criteria for determining if a replication is a failure or a success, the National Library of Science and the Open Science Collaboration suggest asking some key questions, such as:

  • Does the replication produce a statistically significant effect in the same direction as the original?
  • Is the effect size in the replication similar to the effect size in the original?
  • Does the original effect size fall within the confidence or prediction interval of the replication?
  • Does a meta-analytic combination of results from the original experiment and the replication yield a statistically significant effect?
  • Do the results of the original experiment and the replication appear to be consistent?

While many clearly have an opinion about how and why replication fails, it is at best a null statement and at worst an unfair accusation. It misses the point, sidesteps the role of replication as a mechanism to further scientific endeavor by presenting new evidence to an existing question.

Can the replication process be improved?

The need to both restructure the definition of replication to account for variations in scientific fields and to recognize the degrees of potential outcomes when comparing the original data, comes in response to the replication crisis. Listen to this Hidden Brain podcast from NPR for an intriguing case study on this phenomenon.

Considered academia’s self-made disaster, the replication crisis is spurring other improvements in the replication process. Most broadly, it has prompted the resurgence and expansion of metascience, a field with roots in both philosophy and science that is widely referred to as "research on research" and "the science of science." By holding a mirror up to the scientific method, metascience is not only elucidating the purpose of replication but also guiding the rigors of its techniques.

Further efforts to improve replication are threaded throughout the industry, from updated research practices and study design to revised publication practices and oversight organizations, such as:

  • Requiring full transparency of the materials and methods used in a study
  • Pushing for statistical reform, including redefining the significance of the p-value
  • Using pre registration reports that present the study’s plan for methods and analysis
  • Adopting result-blind peer review allowing journals to accept a study based on its methodological design and justifications, not its results
  • Founding organizations like the EQUATOR Network that promotes transparent and accurate reporting

Final thoughts

In the realm of scientific research, replication is a form of checks and balances. Neither the probability of a finding nor prominence of a scientist makes a study immune to the process.

And, while a single replication does not validate or nullify the original study’s outcomes, accumulating evidence from multiple replications does boost the credibility of its claims. At the very least, the findings offer insight to other researchers and enhance the pool of scientific knowledge.

After exploring the philosophy and the mechanisms behind replication, it is clear that the process is not perfect, but evolving. Its value lies within the irreplaceable role it plays in the scientific method. Replication is no more or less important than the other parts, simply necessary to perpetuate the infinite loop of scientific discovery.

Table of contents
FacebookTwitterLinkedInCopy linkEmail
Join the newsletter
Sign up for early access to AJE Scholar articles, discounts on AJE services, and more

See our "Privacy Policy"