Stapel diet of fraud

Miles Hewstone discusses a heinous data-faking scandal and the lessons that must be learned to stop the ‘betrayers of the truth’

September 22, 2011

Credit: Elly Walton

Attempting to view and download the publications of the prolific social psychologist Diederik Stapel recently, I drew a blank - literally. His web page at Tilburg University in the Netherlands is empty, but his name is on many lips: what has already been dubbed “Stapelgate” threatens to be one of the biggest data-faking scandals in the history of the social sciences.

Stapel was a wunderkind of European social psychology who accrued numerous publications in leading outlets and gleaned major awards for his research. He was also a senior editor of the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, one of the most prominent journals in the field. If the extent of the data faking proves to be as significant as is rumoured, numerous papers may have to be retracted from a variety of journals, including the best in the field.

In a respected book published in 1982, William Broad and Nicholas Wade, journalists on The New York Times, called people of Stapel’s ilk “betrayers of the truth”. They undermine confidence in science, violate the values of rigour and honesty expected of dispassionate and conscientious researchers, and, in this case, potentially ruin the lives of many young scholars.

Stapel has been suspended by Tilburg’s executive board. A statement on the university’s website says Stapel “has committed a serious breach of scientific integrity by using fictitious data in his publications”. He has admitted his guilt and agreed to “cooperate fully” with the investigation into his publications. Although the scope and extent of Stapel’s actions are not yet known, he has potentially violated research ethics for a decade or longer. Naively, students and postdocs seem to have accepted data “collected” for them by Stapel. With hindsight, in a world where students normally collect the data for professors, perhaps any future student should be enjoined to beware supervisors bearing gifts!

Stapel’s actions could potentially blight the careers of numerous young scholars who worked with him: their futures lie in the balance. It appears that for many, that hand of papers in the most sought-after outlets will turn out to be a busted flush. It is even more to their credit that these young people who had so much to lose were the ones who blew the whistle on their senior colleague.

Stapel’s university has set up an independent committee chaired by W.J.M. Levelt, former president of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, to rule “which pieces of research have been affected and whether the damage can be repaired”. Others will have to see what can be learned from this case - and how we can prevent future occurrences.

Perhaps our professional organisations should be interviewing those young student whistleblowers to identify the early-warning signs that could be used to detect such practices. Universities could also tighten guidelines to ensure that claimed data really are real data. Raw data could be centrally deposited; all those present at data collection could sign to that effect; and a paper trail for externally collected evidence could be created.

Some have even suggested that science itself may be driving these corrupt practices via its inherently competitive orientation, evidenced in the publish-or-perish mentality, or the links between publication, funding and promotion. This, however, seems an extreme, knee-jerk reaction. We should not lose sight of the fact that this is a rare case. One hears of a few examples of dishonesty, incomparably smaller, and of course there are likely to be undiscovered cases (even though with metaanalysis likely frauds can show up as outliers). But given that the penalties are enormous, fraud is still likely to be relatively infrequent.

Notwithstanding the severity of the charges, there is also a certain black humour to some of the case’s sub-plots. Stapel and colleagues published a study in 1999, “Framed and misfortuned: identity salience and the whiff of scandal”, which asked Dutch social psychologists to respond to a “plagiarism scandal involving a Dutch psychologist” and to indicate how much it affected them and the image of their profession. Was he cocking a snook at the profession even then? Stapel also co-published a paper in 2009, titled “How power influences moral thinking”. And in 2004 he co-edited a book, On Building, Defending, and Regulating the Self: A Psychological Perspective. Stapel apparently went to great lengths to build and defend (but not regulate) his own self. The rest of us need to think about how to rebuild and regulate our science in a non-defensive way to try to ensure that such a scandal is never repeated.

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