As regular readers of this blog are aware, I am fascinated by academic and scientific cheating and the excuses people give for it.
Bruno Frey and colleagues published a single article (with only minor variants) in five different major journals, and these articles did not cite each other. And there have been several other cases of his self-plagiarism (see this review from Olaf Storbeck). I do not mind the general practice of repeating oneself for different audiences—in the social sciences, we call this Arrow’s Theorem—but in this case Frey seems to have gone a bit too far. Blogger Economic Logic has looked into this and concluded that this sort of common practice is standard in “the context of the German(-speaking) academic environment,” and what sets Frey apart is not his self-plagiarism or even his brazenness but rather his practice of doing it in high-visibility journals. Economic Logic writes that “[Frey’s] contribution is pedagogical, he found a good and interesting way to explain something already present in the body of knowledge.” Textbook writers copy and rearrange their own and others’ examples all the time; it’s only when you aim for serious academic journals that it’s a problem.
One question with the econ blogger did not address is: why did all these top research journals publish a paper with no serious research content. Setting aside the self-plagiarism thing, everyone knows that publication in to econ journals is extremely competitive. Why would five different journals be interested in a fairly routine analysis of a small public dataset that has been analyzed many times before?
I don’t have a great answer to that one, except that the example may have seemed offbeat enough to be worthy of publication just for fun (and, unfortunately, none of the journal editors happened to know that they were publishing a variant of a standard example in introductory statistics books).
Ed Wegman is a prominent statistician (he’s received the Founders Award for service to the profession from the American Statistical Association) who has plagiarized in several articles and even a report for the U.S. Congress! And, as is often the case, the plagiarism is typically worse than the original, sometimes introducing errors, other times simply rephrasing in a way that revealed a serious lack of understanding of the original material. There are various theories of what drove Wegman to steal, but I’ll go for my generic explanation of laziness, desire to simulate expertise or creativity where there is none.
The Frey and Wegman stories came out in their full glory a few months ago. I don’t know if Frey is giving public talks. But I was amazed to see, in the program of the Joint Statistical Meetings this past August, that Wegman was involved in two sessions! The first session (“The Human Cultural and Social Landscape”) was organized and chaired by Wegman and featured three speakers, all from Wegman’s department, including Yasmin Said, his coauthor on the paper that was retracted for plagiarism. In his other session, Wegman spoke on computational algorithms for order-restricted inference. The talk is described as a review so plagiarism isn’t so much of an issue, I guess. Still, I wonder if he actually showed up to these sessions.
Frank Fischer is the political scientist who copied big blocks of text from others’ writings without authorization (also, like Frey and Wegman, about 70 years old at the time of being caught), in what looks at a distance to be another lazy attempt to simulate expertise without actually doing the work of digesting the stolen material. I asked a friend about this case the other day, and he said that to the best of his knowledge Fischer has not admitted doing anything wrong. Unlike Frey (who’s a bigshot in European academia) or Wegman (whose work is politically controversial), Fisher is enough of a nobody that apparently survive after being called out for plagiarism with his career otherwise unaffected.
Mark Hauser is the recently retired (at the age of 51) Harvard psychologist who is working on a book, “Evilicious: Explaining Our Evolved Taste for Being Bad,” and also reportedly dabbled in a bit of unethical behavior himself involving questionable interpretation of research data. He was turned in by some of his research assistants who didn’t like that he was being evasive and not letting others replicate his measurements.
I asked E. J. Wagenmakers what he thought about the Hauser case and he replied with an interesting explanation that is based on process rather than personality:
One of the problems is that the field of social psychology has become very competitive, and high-impact publications are only possible for results that are really surprising. Unfortunately, most surprising hypotheses are wrong. That is, unless you test them against data you’ve created yourself. There is a slippery slope here though; although very few researchers will go as far as to make up their own data, many will “torture the data until they confess”, and forget to mention that the results were obtained by torture….
This is a combination of the usual “competitive pressure” story with a more statistical argument about systematic overestimation arising from the statistical-significance filter.
Diederik Stapel is the subject of the most recent high-profile academic plagiarism case. Wagenmakers writes:
He published about 100 articles, and in high ranking journals too (Science being one of them). Turns out he was simply making up his data. He was caught because his grad students discovered that part of the data he gave them contained evidence of a copy-paste job. The extent to which all his work is contaminated (including that of his many PhD students, who he often “gave” experimental results) is as yet unkown. Tilburg university has basically fired him.
Diederik Stapel was not just a productive researcher, but he also made appearances on Dutch TV shows. The scandal is all over the Dutch news. Oh, one of the courses he taught was on something like “Ethical behavior in research”, and one of his papers is about how power corrupts. It doesn’t get much more ironic than this. I should stress that the extent of the fraud is still unclear.
I’ve never done any research fraud myself but I have to say I can see the appeal. The other day I was typing data from survey forms into a file for analysis, and I noticed that the data from some of the research participants didn’t go the way they were “supposed” to. I discussed with my collaborator who had a good explanation for each person based on what had happened in their lives recently. I could feel the real temptation to cheat and adjust the numbers to what I’d guess they should’ve been, absent the shocks which were irrelevant to the study at hand. We didn’t cheat, of course, but it would’ve been so easy. There’s no way anyone would’ve checked, and it would’ve made the results much more convincing in a way that seems appropriate in the larger context of the research.
I can see how a scientist such as Hauser or Stapel could justify this sort of behavior in the name of scientific truth. Similarly, Wegman and Fischer probably felt that, in some deep sense, they really were be experts in the fields they were plagiarizing. Sure, they hadn’t fully absorbed the literature, but they might have felt that they were experts enough that could always have the capacity to understand it if necessary. As for Frey, my guess based on his many writings on academic publication ethics is that he feels that everybody does it, so he needs to play the game too.