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Monday, 7 November 2011

What can we say? Peer reviewed journals, supervised PhD's--junk?

CounterFound online:

In one of the biggest cases of scientific fraud on record, a prominent psychologist has admitted fabricating data in dozens of studies.

Diederik Stapel, who was suspended from his post at Tilburg University in the Netherlands in September, was exceptionally productive. He was responsible for a succession of eye-catching studies on topics including stereotyping and discrimination, the effectiveness of advertising, and the circumstances in which people may perversely prefer negative feedback to praise.

Stapel was suspended after three junior researchers alleged scientific misconduct. But the extent of the problems became known only on Monday, when the university released an interim report concluding that dozens of papers, as well as 14 out of the 21 PhD theses Stapel had supervised, contain fabricated data.

"This is absolutely horrifying," says Laura King, a social psychologist at the University of Missouri in Columbia. "We are talking about research that has major impact in the field of social cognition." Social cognition is the field of psychology that investigates how our mental processes affect the way we relate to one another.

In terms of the sheer volume of research implicated, Stapel's is one of the worst cases of scientific misconduct on record. The chair of the committee that has examined Stapel's work at Tilburg University told Nature that some 30 papers have so far been found to contain fabricated data. If these are all withdrawn, they will exceed the toll of retractions of papers by Jan Hendrik Schön, whose groundbreaking work at Bell Labs, New Jersey, on electronic devices made from organic molecules was found in 2002 to contain widespread fabrication and manipulation of data.

The case leaves red-faced collaborators cursing themselves for being so trusting. "I was duped," admits Hart Blanton of the University of Connecticut in Storrs, who expects to have to retract two papers he published with Stapel examining how "priming" people by showing them a picture of Albert Einstein can make them feel less intelligent.

Some of Stapel's recent work was certainly provocative. A paper published in April in the journal Science claimed that disordered environments such as littered streets make people more prone to stereotyping and discrimination. Although the Tilburg inquiry has not yet identified the studies that contain fabricated data, Science has already published an expression of concern about this paper.

In a statement released to the Dutch media this week, Stapel admitted fabricating data and apologised for the damage done to his colleagues and the field of social psychology. "I have failed as a scientist," he said.

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