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Somebody listened to me!

Several months ago, I wrote:

One challenge, though, is that uncovering the problem [of scientific fraud] 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 . . .

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.

And here it is . . . in the Atlantic Monthly, an excellent brief article on Simonsohn, written by science journalist Christopher Shea. A few more articles like this might motivate more scientists to look into fraud more seriously, and it might scare a few potential fraudsters into staying legit. This is something that my Columbia sociology colleague Sudhir Venkatesh might appreciate, given how he [Sudhir] “repeatedly pointed out lax procedures that had long been the rule [at Columbia] and . . . called for a thorough review of all procedures on several occasions, in part because [he] was worried about the risks the University faced.” Change the incentives, change the behavior.


  1. Thomas says:

    Yes, great article. I especially agree with these two sentiments:

    ‘“I couldn’t tolerate knowing something was fake and not doing something about it,” [Simonsohn] told [Shea]. “Everything loses meaning. What’s the point of writing a paper, fighting very hard to get it published, going to conferences?”

    … sloppy statistics are “like steroids in baseball”: Throughout the affected fields, researchers who are too intellectually honest to use these tricks will publish less, and may perish. Meanwhile, the less fastidious flourish.’

    This is the definitely true in the cases I’ve studied. It’s the sloppy work that dominates.

  2. Great profile and great quote from Simonsohn in Thomas’s comment. That quote reminds me of a story involving my colleague and grand-advisor Lew Goldberg. Lew once stood up during the Q&A after a talk and bet someone a case of whiskey that their result was due to a coding error. The back-and-forth stretched out over several years and eventually led Lew to publish the only instance I’ve ever seen of a commentary on an erratum, because he felt the erratum didn’t go far enough. When someone asked him about it recently, his reply was “Science is more interesting when it’s true.”

  3. Tom says:

    Your last sentence immediately reminded me of the book “Strings Attached” which you said might ne interesting, I found it to be so. I look forward to what you might write in your statistics and ethics book.

  4. Fernando says:

    From the Guardian:

    Under the Cortex model, before authors collect their data they will submit introductions and analysis plans, which will be reviewed. If appropriate, the paper will be accepted in principle, after which the authors can collect data and finish off their manuscript. Finally, the work will go out for a second review, to be assessed on whether the conclusions are justified by the data, rather than the perceived importance of the results. In addition, raw data and lab logs will be made available alongside the manuscript. Interestingly, so too will the reviews.