Two news items.
1. A couple people pointed me to the uncovering of another fraudulent Dutch psychology researcher—this time it was Dirk Smeesters, rather than Diederik Stapel. It’s hard to keep these guys straight—they all pretty much have the same names and do the same things.
Stapel and Smeesters also seem to live in the same postmodernist/business-school nexus: left-wing enough to not care about truth if it confirms their social theories, right-wing enough to not care as long as they’re getting paid enough.
In the comments to the Retraction Watch post, Richard Gill writes, “it looks to me [Gill] like Smeesters was subjected to medieval torture and confessed.” Medieval torture, huh? I haven’t seen Holy Grail in many years but I recall that’s pretty rough stuff, of the sort that even John Yoo might think twice about. I followed the links and didn’t see what the torture was, but I have to admit I didn’t even try to read the Dutch documents. On the upside, Gill follows up with “it seems like he did indeed have something serious to confess to, since all of his data is missing and no-one else ever saw any of it”—so maybe the medieval system worked in this case! Evilicious, indeed.
These retractions come after a great deal of criticism . . . Not only is the scholarship that is required to force a retraction difficult and time consuming to carry out, it often meets resistance from peers and editors. The retraction is the easy part. It is criticism that “makes science work” (in both senses).
My impression is that non-retraction is the norm, and retraction is considered exceptional. Just as we would applaud a person who rescues someone who has fallen on to the train tracks but would not criticize someone who does not perform the dangerous rescue, many academics see retractions as admirable but non-retractions as the usual behavior.
Thomas points to the work of Karl Weick, who has not been accused of faking his research results but has copied chunks of another’s work in his papers without attribution. Unlike the utterly discredited Stapel and Smeesters, Weick has followed the Wegman strategy of brazening it out and brushing aside all accusations of plagiarism. What Weick, Wegman, Stapel, and Smeesters all have in common, though, is that they are big shots within their fields but nobodies outside. Each has had some pre-scandal exposure (Weick has copied a story which has reached the ears of many famous people, Wegman testified before Congress, and Stapel and Smeesters have hit the headlines on occasion with their amusing research claims), but scholars outside their immediate fields generally don’t seem to have heard of these people.
Sometimes it seems that the people close to these offenders just don’t want to hear the bad news, and outsiders just don’t care. I agree, though, with Rojas that retractions are good. One challenge, though, is that uncovering the problem and forcing the retraction is a near-thankless job. That’s one reason I don’t mind if Uri Simonsohn is treated as some sort of hero or superstar for uncovering multiple cases of research fraud. Some people might feel there’s something unseemly about Simonsohn doing this (see several of the comments to the link at the very top of this post), just as some defenders of Karl Weick mocked Basbøll for going to the trouble of exposing a decades-old plagiarism.
OK, fine, but let’s talk incentives. If retractions are a good thing, and fraudsters and plagiarists are not generally going to retract on their own, then somebody’s going to have to do the hard work of discovering, exposing, and confronting scholarly misconduct. If these discoverers, exposers, and confronters are going to be attacked back by their targets (which would be natural enough) and they’re going to be attacked by the fraudsters’ friends and colleagues (also natural) and even have their work disparaged by outsiders who think they’re going too far, then, hey, they need some incentives in the other direction. So, yes, I think it’s fair enough for the Uri Simonsohns of the world to get a little fame and fortune in return for their admirable efforts.