Don't tar discipline with Stapel brush

December 20, 2012

The report of the Levelt, Noort and Drenth committees into the fraudulent research practices of the social psychologist Diederik Stapel performs a valuable service for the academic community. In cataloguing the nature and extent of Stapel's malpractice, the report draws attention to a number of challenging issues and provides a necessary corrective to the scholarly literature by specifying the details of the research fraud in each of the publications examined by the committees. The British Psychological Society's social psychology section welcomes this aspect of the report.

However, the committees go on to question the integrity of social psychology as a whole. Despite a clear statement that they are "unwilling to make any statement about social psych-ology in general", their verdict is nevertheless damning: "The committees can reach no conclusion other than that from the bottom to the top there was a general neglect of fundamental scientific standards and methodological requirements", which extends beyond Stapel's immediate circle to encompass journal editors and peer reviewers. This leads the report to suggest that "there are certain aspects of the discipline itself that should be deemed undesirable or even incorrect from the perspective of academic standards and scientific integrity".

We have strong concerns that these conclusions are unwarranted in so far as they paint a picture of the field as seriously and uniquely compromised. As has been pointed out by Wolfgang Stroebe, Tom Postmes and Russell Spears in a recent issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science, there are no grounds for concluding either that research fraud is any more common in social psychology than other disciplines or that its editorial processes are particularly poor at detecting it. They point out that fraud in all disciplines is typically identified only by the actions of whistleblowers rather than through the peer-review system.

Let us be clear: research fraud is beyond the pale, and critical scrutiny and reflection on research practices is to be encouraged. But let us be equally clear that where action is needed, the issues extend far beyond a single field. Scientists in all disciplines would find much of value in the output of sociologists of science - from the classic works of Harry Collins, Bruno Latour and others - who have shown the contingent and "messy" nature of practice across all scientific disciplines. Their aim typically has not been to understand "bad science" but instead to elucidate the operation of the scientific endeavour as a social system. Such critical reflection sheds light on the disjuncture between "science in action" (to use Latour's term) and the official accounts one finds in the typical research report.

If genuine reflection on scientific practice is to be encouraged, it is this much more far-reaching endeavour that will ultimately serve the greater good. Our subdiscipline does not deserve the harm to its reputation that may be provoked by the careless implication of "unique" deficiencies.

Stephen Gibson, Honorary secretary, British Psychological Society, Social psychology section

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