A correspondent writes:
Since you have commented on scientific fraud a lot. I wanted to give you an update on the Diederik Stapel case. I’d rather not see my name on the blog if you would elaborate on this any further. It is long but worth the read I guess.
I’ll first give you the horrible details which will fill you with a mixture of horror and stupefied amazement at Stapel’s behavior. Then I’ll share Stapel’s abject apology, which might make you feel sorry for the guy.
First the amazing story of how he perpetrated the fraud:
There has been an interim report delivered to the rector of Tilburg University.
Tilburg University is cooperating with the university of Amsterdam and of Groningen in this case. The results are pretty severe, I provide here a quick and literal translation of some comments by the chairman of the investigation committee. This report is publicly available on the university webpage (along with some other things of interest) but in Dutch:
What have we found? The size of the fraud is severe. So far we are sure that at least 30 articles made use of data fabricated by Stapel himself. These are publications in the best peer reviewed magazines in his field. We have serious suspicions of fraud in a few dozen other articles, some chapters of books and proceedings of conferences. This fraudulous practice has been going on for years. At least since 2004. Our first task, determining the size and time span of the fraud will take much longer. We, along with colleagues from Groningen and Amsterdam will investigate each of his ca. 130 articles -especially the data-analysis parts. The same goes for the 24 book chapters and the numerous proceedings.
But we already know the nature of the fraud. The main technique appears to be the following. Along with a junior researcher: a masters student, a phd student or a postdoc, he would develop a theory with testable hypotheses. Only among them two. Next they would prepare in excruciating detail experiments: questionnaires, incentives, visual materials etc. In many cases, the junior researcher needed to provide tables summarizing the expected outcomes of the experiments. This preparatory phase was intense and demanded a lot of time. Next came the execution phase. The experiments were typically conducted (allegedly) in schools or education institutions throughout the country. The junior researcher provided the research materials to Stapel and in many cases he would put these in the truck of his car. Allegedly, Stapel would take these to the schools himself. He claimed that the experiments or surveys were used in the schools. Carrying out these experiments were done by ‘paid research assistents’. He claimed that they entered the data and constructed the datasets. After a while the junior researchers received the data from Diederik Stapel. The junior researcher carried out the empirical analysis and wrote a first version of the paper or article. Our report contains different schemes but the approach outlined above seems to be typical.
Not only do we find the size of the fraud astonishing -the commission discovered each day something more shocking- but even worse is the personal damage he has caused. He never considered the young people who he mentored and guided -while using them for his own prestige and glory. At this point we are only sure that 7 out of 21 phd students (from Groningen and Tilburg) did not use fabricated data. All other dissertations used data which went through the hands of Diederik Stapel and can be considered suspicious. We are talking about young, ambitious researchers at the beginning of their career who have found out that their advisor lied to them. The can’t be pride of their own dissertation anymore and may have to scrap some articles (sometimes the majority) from their CV. The investigating committees have found out that the junior researchers were unknowledgeable of the fraud and had no way of discovering the fraud.
How did Stapel manage to pull off such a mass fraud? The primary explanation seems to be his methodology, a combination of abuse of power and subtle approach. The careful and thorough preparatory phase of each experiment did not leave any doubt that this was actual research. The research considered school holidays and the schools (allegedly) only wanted to deal with Stapel himself. Stapel ‘rewarded’ schools (allegedly) with lectures or provided computers, beamers to the schools etc. This exclusive approach, he claimed, allowed continued cooperation. The schools would not appreciate junior researchers dropping in in their classes. In other instances, he would claim that the paper versions of the questionnaires were not avaiable as the schools nor Stapel could store the paper versions etc etc.
Stapel had visible power. He was the top dog of the department if not faculty. He became department head and later on Dean. His influence was without question. He was admired but also feared. When a collaborator would ask for questionnaires or any specifics, Stapel would point out that the close collaboration merited mutual trust. If needed, he would (in a subtle manner) point out that the collaboration was not guaranteed or that a phd position was not 100%. Abuse of power seems to be common.
The report goes on. But it is just amazing. The committee investigating the issue seems to be pretty straightforward. The rector indicated that he wants to see every detail resolved. Everyone is aware of the damage this may cause academic research (especially in the social sciences), but the best approach seems to investigate this thoroughly.
The report gives some (in my opinion convincing) reasons why Stapel seemed to be in this game on his own. Moreover they make some recommendations.
I thought you might want to follow up on this case.
I am always worried that I coded somethin wrong in my research or that my data cleaning or outlier choice may be interpreted as fraud (that is why I keep extensive records of all my research and motivate every step in my code). When you are confronted with such a lunatic, you feel awful.
Now a response (also translated from Dutch by my correspondent) by a spokesperson on behalf of Diederik Stapel:
The last couple of weeks I have been thinking on whether I should respond and if so, what to say. It is difficult to find the proper words. The commission has spoken. And now I have to -and I want to- say something; although it is difficult to say the proper thing.
I have failed as a scientist, as a researcher. I have amended my research data and faked research. Not once, but several times and not for a brief moment, but for a prolonged period. I realize that this behaviour has shocked and angered my colleagues and my profession, social psychology. I am ashamed and I regret this.
Science is a human endeavor, teamwork. I have enjoyed collaborating with numerous talented and motivated colleagues. I would like to stress that I have never informed them of my practices. I offer my sincere apologies to my colleagues, my phd students and the entire academic community. I realize the suffering and sadness I caused.
Social psychology is a large, solid and important research field that offers beautiful, unique insights in human behaviour and therefor deserves the proper attention. I have made the mistake of trying to shape the truth and present the world somewhat nicer than it is. In modern science, the standards are high and the competition for scarce resources is enormous.
The last couple of years the pressure has gotten me. I could not withstand the pressure to score, to publish, to be better. I wanted to much to soon. In a system with a few checks, where people often work on their own, I have taken a wrong direction. I would like to stress that the mistakes I made were not out of self interest.
I realize that many questions are left unanswered. My current condition does not allow me to answer these. I’ll need to dig much deeper to figure out why this has happened, what pushed me to do this. I need help and meanwhile I already have gotten some. I would like to leave it to this for now.
Given all the fraud in business, government, etc., it is perhaps no surprise that there is fraud in science too. There’s something about these cases, that they always seem to look particularly sleazy when you get to the details. Glengarry Glen Ross it ain’t.