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Red flag for psychology research?
An interim report by Tilburg University into the fraudulent research activities of social psychologist Diederik Stapel has found the extent of his malpractice to be on a 'shocking scale', with 'several dozen' studies implicated over a period of more than a decade, writes Christian Jarrett in The Psychologist. The investigating committee, chaired by Professor Willem Levelt, a psycholinguist, published their initial findings early in November.
A full list of affected studies will be published later with the final report. No other individuals were found to be culpable, but the interim report says the affair has profound ramifications for the reputation and practice of psychology. It has already generated a great deal of mainstream media interest, with 'Fraud Case Seen as a Red Flag for Psychology Research' being the chosen headline of the New York Times.
According to the Levelt Committee, Stapel's 'cunning, simple system' at Tilburg and earlier at Groningen University was to form intense one-on-one relationships with students and other researchers, to discuss hypotheses and methodologies with them at length, to prepare together the necessary materials, but to do all the apparent research collection himself at local schools. In many instances, the research never took place and the data was entirely fabricated. Other times it was massaged. Only then was it passed to students or colleagues for inspection, analysis and write-up. 'This conduct is deplorable,' the report says.
The doctoral work of five students at Tilburg and seven at Groningen, some of whom did no data collection of their own, is tainted as a consequence. Another strategy was for Stapel to produce old, unpublished data-sets - also fabricated or doctored - that he claimed were just perfect for answering colleagues' and students' new research questions.
Concerns had been raised about Stapel's practices in previous years by three young researchers and by two senior colleagues. But it was only this August when three more young researchers reported their misgivings that a full investigation was launched. 'The Committee concludes that the six young whistle blowers showed more courage, vigilance and inquisitiveness than incumbent full professors,' the report says.
How did Stapel avoid detection for so long? The Committee finds that much of this has to do with personality and status - charismatic Stapel enjoyed a 'virtually unassailable position' in his department, used his 'prestige, reputation and influence', formed close friendships with many of his colleagues and students, and was widely judged to have 'phenomenal research skills'. However, that anomalies in his data and unrealistically perfect results were allowed to persist has exposed 'the flawed performance of academic criticism, which is the cornerstone of science,' the report says.
Stapel's research, on topics such as how power dehumanises us, and the effect of mirrors on prejudice, was published in some of science's most prestigious journals. Yet clues as to Stapel's activities went unnoticed: the lack of detail provided in his papers about research participants and about the feasibility of sometimes complex experiments being conducted in schools. 'Apparently neither the reviewers nor the editorial teams of journals delved into aspects of this kind,' the report says.
Central to the longevity of Stapel's fraud was that he was able to keep his fabricated raw data from so many people for many years without raising undue alarm. The report suggests this was possible because of 'a lamentable... culture in social psychology and psychology research for everyone to keep their own data and not make them available to a public archive'. This is an issue that has been raised before: a 2006 paper by Jelte Wicherts and colleagues in American Psychologist found that just 27 per cent of psychology study authors they contacted were willing to share their data for re-analysis (see News, January 2007). In another paper published this November, Wicherts and his team found that psychologists were less likely to share their data if the likelihood of errors being found was high or the strength of evidence was weak (PLoS One). More worrying still, a study led by Leslie John in press at Psychological Science finds that 'questionable practices may constitute the prevailing research norm' based on an anonymous survey of 2000 psychologists.
The Levelt Committee's interim report concludes with recommendations to prevent fraud on such a scale from occurring again at Tilburg University and more widely, including: having PhD students complete a short integrity course; establishing a Confidential Counsellor For Academic Integrity; creating rules to protect whistle-blowers; and requiring journals to provide details on where and how data are collected. 'Far more than is customary in psychology research practice, research replication must be made part of the basic instruments of the discipline. Research data that underlie psychology publications must be held on file for at least five years after publication, and be made available on request to other scientific practitioners.'
In a formal response to the Committee findings, Stapel said he'd read the report with 'a sense of dismay and shame'. He claimed he'd not been motivated by self-interest and regretted the suffering he'd caused. 'Unfortunately my present state does not permit me to assess this report completely for any factual accuracies,' he said. In a separate statement to the press, he said (translated from Dutch) that he'd 'just wanted to make something more beautiful than it is'.
Edited: 12/05/2011 at 09:29 AM by jonsut
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