Research Theory; Research Design
In science, objectivity, or the quality of being uninfluenced by individual perspectives or biases, is considered a major goal. Yet researchers are unavoidably individuals and therefore always subjective to some degree. For this reason, both natural and social sciences devote considerable effort to ensuring steps are taken to make research as objective as possible. Part of this is a conscious decision by researchers, who generally strive to be objective in following the scientific method. Yet biases remain, often unconsciously. It is important to recognize inherent biases in order to minimize them and their impacts on research findings.
Regardless of their factual knowledge, every researcher approaches a project as an individual with unique perspectives that have evolved throughout their life experiences. Some of this subjectivity is trivial, such as a preference for coffee over tea. Such trivial subjectivity either does not impact the validity of research or can be consciously dismissed if relevant to a study. Education, training, and experience all push researchers to be as detached as possible from their individual preferences and perspectives. This quality, known as objectivity, is generally seen as critical to scientific research. The scientific method, with its insistence on testing and reproduction of results, is often considered a way to strive for objectivity.
However, maintaining objectivity is far from simple. In addition to basic subjective preferences, all researchers and all human subjects of research are subject to subtler biases, including sampling bias, cognitive bias, and cultural bias. These influences, which are typically unconscious and are thought to be deeply ingrained in human psychology, can detract from objectivity in powerful ways. For example, a white researcher living in a predominantly white town may recruit only white people for a study. If the study is focused on a local phenomenon, this may not be problematic. However, if the researcher attempts to generalize the results of the study to the whole US population, both sampling and cultural bias will likely compromise objectivity and therefore the validity of the findings. Systematic bias can affect the development and structure of experiments, the accuracy of measurements, and the interpretation of results.
Scientists strive to maintain objectivity at every step in a study, from initial conception to evaluation of results. Experts on research integrity agree that researchers should never begin with the idea that they know exactly what they will find. The purpose of research is to arrive at answers that reflect actual findings. Thus, findings may support initial hypotheses, but they may also turn a researcher in a new direction. In the initial stages of research, when hypotheses are being formed and research questions are being stated, it is essential that language be as unbiased as possible so as not to distort results. The size and makeup of samples in a study are also important. Randomization and other methods are used to make research subjects as representative of the general population as possible.
One of the most effective methods for maintaining objectivity in data collection is to set up blind research projects. Single-blind studies eliminate bias among research subjects by keeping them unware of whether they are members of a control group or the test group. A double-blind study attempts to remove bias among researchers as well, and is considered the gold standard for much research. However, blind trials are not always possible and require significant time and investment.
Once data is collected, researchers face additional objectivity challenges in analyzing and reporting their findings. Possible issues include failure to record data correctly, errors in statistical analysis, and cultural biases in interpretation. Objectivity may also be lost if a researcher opts for a method of analysis that does not reflect what was actually learned. Replication of research and peer review of material submitted for publication are two common methods used to encourage the highest possible degree of objectivity. Even so, studies that take steps to maintain objectivity may still later be found to be biased.
An ongoing concern is whether or not it is possible for research conducted or sponsored by private, forprofit companies to be as objective as that undertaken by government or nonprofit organizations. Scholars have identified a “funding effect” bias, noting that results of industry-funded studies consistently present the industry's products more favorably than do results of research funded by outside parties. Examples include research funded by the tobacco industry that downplays the health effects of smoking and research funded by fossil-fuel companies that questions climate change. Critics claim that this apparent lack of objectivity threatens the integrity of scientific research.
Because of major problems with conflicts of interest in research, significant interest has been directed toward the promotion of objectivity. Various academic, national, and international organizations have formed to uphold good research practices. Much research itself remains devoted to studying the causes and effects of objectivity, subjectivity, and bias. By better understanding the issues and their implications, scientists can better pursue truth.
Objectivity remains vital to science even as some researchers question its limits. The belief that natural science lends itself to objectivity while social science is more likely to be subjective remains common, even to the point of contention between the two broad fields. Yet it is apparent that objectivity is an important goal, if perhaps one impossible to fully achieve, across the sciences and beyond. It has important applications to other disciplines, from philosophy to international relations, and even to everyday life. As a concept, objectivity stands as a critical idea that illustrates the great complexity of human consciousness.
—Elizabeth Rholetter Purdy, PhD
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Krimsky, Sheldon. “Do Financial Conflicts of Interest Bias Research? An Inquiry into the ‘Funding Effect’ Hypothesis.” Science, Technology, & Human Values, vol. 38, no. 4, 2013, pp. 566–87.
Letherby, Gayle, et al. Objectivity and Subjectivity in Social Research. Sage Publications, 2013.
Steck, Andreas J., and Barbara Steck. Brain and Mind: Subjective Experience and Scientific Objectivity. Springer, 2016.
Yetiv, Steve A. National Security through a Cockeyed Lens: How Cognitive Bias Impacts US Foreign Policy. Johns Hopkins UP, 2013.