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Posted at 05:38 PM ET, 11/01/2011

Diederik Stapel: The Lying Dutchman

Big science news today out of the Netherlands: A top social scientist, Diederik Stapel, of Tilburg University, has been suspended after an investigation showed that he’s been fabricating his data for years. This may seem far away and esoteric in the extreme, but there’s collateral damage here in DC, home base of the AAAS journal Science, which published one of Diederik Stapel’s papers in April.

That paper, “Coping With Chaos: How Disordered Contexts Promote Stereotypying and Discrimination,” claimed that people were more likely to be prejudicial toward others when in the presence of litter, a broken sidewalk, an abandoned bicycle, etc.

The problem is, there may not have been any experiment upon which this conclusion was based. Stapel apparently invented his raw data and then handed it to his graduate students to intepret. Read the story at Science Insider:

“The panel reported that he would discuss in detail experimental designs, including drafting questionnaires, and would then claim to conduct the experiments at high schools and universities with which he had special arrangements. The experiments, however, never took place, the universities concluded. Stapel made up the data sets, which he then gave the student or collaborator for analysis, investigators allege. In other instances, the report says, he told colleagues that he had an old data set lying around that he hadn’t yet had a chance to analyze. When Stapel did conduct actual experiments, the committee found evidence that he manipulated the results.

“Many of Stapel’s students graduated without having ever run an experiment, the report says. Stapel told them that their time was better spent analyzing data and writing. The commission writes that Stapel was ’lord of the data’ in his collaborations. It says colleagues or students who asked to see raw data were given excuses or even threatened and insulted.”

It’s not known yet if the Science paper in April was one of the ones with fabricated data, but Science spokeswoman Kathy Wren said this afternoon, “It seems highly likely that this Science paper is involved.” She said the Dutch investigators alerted the journal in September that the April paper might be tainted.

The journal’s editor-in-chief, Bruce Alberts, issued a brief statement today, called an “Editorial Expression of Concern,” in which he noted the findings released Monday by the Dutch investigators. He said the report “indicates that the extent of the fraud by Stapel is substantial.”

His students were victims, too — and ultimately realized that they were being taken for a ride. According to Science Insider, 14 of 21 of the theses published by Stapel’s students were affected by the tainted data.

Should the journal Science have known that this was a bogus paper? There’s a peer review process, but it’s one that isn’t designed to detect outright, bald-faced fraud.

Wren said today, “Science is not an investigative body, and so if a scientist is intentionally trying to deceive, the peer review system is not really set up to investigate that sort of thing.”

[Good report here by Ewen Callaway of Nature, republished by Scientific American’s website. Describes Stapel as a wunderkind. The investigative report has a statement from Stapel: “I have made mistakes, but I was and am honestly concerned with the field of social psychology. I therefore regret the pain that I have caused others.”]

By  |  05:38 PM ET, 11/01/2011

 
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