A Cornell professor whose buzzy and accessible food studies made him a media darling has submitted his resignation, the school said Thursday, a dramatic fall for a scholar whose work increasingly came under question in recent years.
The university said in a statement that a year-long review found that Brian Wansink “committed academic misconduct in his research and scholarship, including misreporting of research data, problematic statistical techniques, failure to properly document and preserve research results, and inappropriate authorship.”
Wansink, a marketing professor at Cornell’s business college who was the director of the university’s Food and Brand Lab, will retire at the end of the academic year, the school said.
The move follows the recent retraction of six of Wansink’s papers by the American Medical Association’s JAMA Network, including those about how serving bowl size affected food consumption, how fasting changed people’s food preferences and how action-packed television programs increased food intake.
Wansink emailed The Washington Post on Thursday a news release of his retirement, which included statements attributed to a university trustee saying that "Cornell and Professor Wansink mutually have decided that Professor Wansink’s research approach and goals differ from the academic expectations of Cornell University, and they have decided to part ways accordingly.”
Wansink said he is leaving his position June 30, 2019.
For years, Wansink enjoyed a level of prominence that many academics would strive for, his work spawning countless news stories. He published a study showing that people who ate from “bottomless” bowls of soup continue to eat as their bowls are refilled, as a parable about the potential health effects of large portion sizes. Another, with the title “Bad popcorn in big buckets,” similarly warned about the perils of presenting food in big quantities, according to Vox.
He was given an appointment at the Department of Agriculture’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion and helped oversee the shaping of federal dietary guidelines, according to Vox. He was cited in popular media outlets such as O, the Oprah Magazine and the “Today” show and featured in newspapers such as the New York Times and The Washington Post. According to the blog the Skeptical Scientist, which is run by PhD student Tim van der Zee, the hundreds of papers Wansink published drew so much attention that they were cited some 20,000 times.
But problems started to bubble up in 2016, after Wansink wrote a blog post about his research that drew wide criticism, according to BuzzFeed. Other researchers began investigating his studies and raised questions about his methodology. In 2017, Cornell undertook a review of four of his papers that found “numerous instances of inappropriate data handling and statistical analysis,” but said the errors “did not constitute scientific misconduct.”
According to BuzzFeed, which published a big report on Wansink earlier this year, critics from all over the world analyzed more than 50 of his studies to compile a list of errors and inconsistencies called the “Wansink Dossier.” According to BuzzFeed, 13 of Wansink’s papers have been retracted and more than a dozen others corrected. Cornell opened another investigation into Wansink’s work last year, BuzzFeed reported.
According to BuzzFeed’s February report, which included a trove of Wansink’s emails obtained from New Mexico State University, which employs one of Wansink’s collaborators, “year after year, Wansink and his collaborators at the Cornell Food and Brand Lab have turned shoddy data into headline-friendly eating lessons that they could feed to the masses.”
In correspondence between 2008 and 2016, the renowned Cornell scientist and his team discussed and even joked about exhaustively mining datasets for impressive-looking results. They strategized how to publish subpar studies, sometimes targeting journals with low standards. And they often framed their findings in the hopes of stirring up media coverage to, as Wansink once put it, “go virally big time.”
“I stand by and am immensely proud of the work done here at the Lab,” Wansink told BuzzFeed. “The Food and Brand Lab does not use ‘low-quality data,' nor does it seek to publish ‘subpar studies.’ ”
On Wednesday, JAMA said it was retracting multiple studies done by Wansink. Cornell said it was unable to confirm the scientific validity of the six studies after an investigation because it was unable to access the original data they were based on, according to JAMA. The university had been contacted to evaluate the articles after JAMA flagged them for potential concern in May.
“Cornell University has notified JAMA that based on its investigation they are unable to provide assurances regarding the scientific validity of the 6 studies,” JAMA said in a statement. “Their response states: ‘We regret that, because we do not have access to the original data, we cannot assure you that the results of the studies are valid.’ Therefore, the 6 articles reporting the results of these studies that were published in JAMA, JAMA Internal Medicine, and JAMA Pediatrics are hereby retracted.”
The articles now appear online with a note at the top in red that says “article alert” and directs readers to a retraction note.
In an email to The Post on Wednesday, Wansink said that the retractions came as “quite a surprise."
“From what my coauthors and I believed, the independent analyses of our data sets confirmed all of our published findings,” he said. “What we did not keep over the past 25 years are the original pencil and paper surveys and coding sheets that were used in these papers. That is, once we combined all the data into spreadsheets, we tossed the pencil and paper versions. That might be why they said they couldn’t reproduce these from scratch (that is, there was no scratch). As I told my coauthors, I’ve very proud of all of these papers, and I’m confident they will be replicated by other groups."
Cornell said that Wansink will not teach or participate in research in his remaining time at the university, but will cooperate in an ongoing review of his work.