In Praise of Moderation: Suggestions for the Scope and Use of Pre-Analysis Plans for RCTs in Economics

Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo, Amy Finkelstein, Lawrence F. Katz, Benjamin A. Olken, Anja Sautmann

NBER Working Paper No. 26993
Issued in April 2020
NBER Program(s):Development Economics, Labor Studies, Public Economics

Pre-Analysis Plans (PAPs) for randomized evaluations are becoming increasingly common in Economics, but their definition remains unclear and their practical applications therefore vary widely. Based on our collective experiences as researchers and editors, we articulate a set of principles for the ex-ante scope and ex-post use of PAPs. We argue that the key benefits of a PAP can usually be realized by completing the registration fields in the AEA RCT Registry. Specific cases where more detail may be warranted include when subgroup analysis is expected to be particularly important, or a party to the study has a vested interest. However, a strong norm for more detailed pre-specification can be detrimental to knowledge creation when implementing field experiments in the real world. An ex-post requirement of strict adherence to pre-specified plans, or the discounting of non-pre-specified work, may mean that some experiments do not take place, or that interesting observations and new theories are not explored and reported. Rather, we recommend that the final research paper be written and judged as a distinct object from the “results of the PAP”; to emphasize this distinction, researchers could consider producing a short, publicly available report (the “populated PAP”) that populates the PAP to the extent possible and briefly discusses any barriers to doing so.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w26993

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