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I was gonna write a post entitled, “Unlocking past collaboration: student use affects mood and happiness,” but it didn’t seem worth the bother

Ivan Oransky points us to this hilarious story of a retracted paper in Psychological Science. The hilarious part is not the article itself (a dry-as-dust collection of small-N experiments with open-ended data-exclusion and data-analysis rules, accompanied by the usual scattering of statistically significant p-values in the garden) or even the reason for the retraction:

A university investigation found the data had been manipulated. . . . the notice cites an unnamed graduate student as the source of the manipulation.

And the student’s supervisor, Prof. Will Hart, is concerned:

You feel devastated. You feel . . . yeah, I don’t know. Very uncertain. Worried, embarrassed. And honestly concerned for the student. I knew this individual quite well.

OK, now for the funny part. We don’t know who the student is, because Hart wrote the paper entirely in the first person (“In the research reported here, I examined . . . In particular, I examined . . . In four experiments, I tested . . . Specifically, I examined . . . I propose . . . I hypothesized . . . I predicted . . . I hypothesized . . . In four experiments, I examined . . . I measured . . . I predicted . . . I summed . . . I then measured . . . my results . . . Subsequently, I told participants that I was interested in their experience during the task.

No coauthor, no acknowledgements, no nothing. According to the report at Retraction Watch:

Hart explained the student was not listed as an author on the paper because he or she only collected the data, and didn’t participate in writing the manuscript.

Damn! Ya gotta watch your back. Go rip of a student’s data with no credit, and they just might sabotage you.

In all seriousness, this kind of thing can happen. For example, a coauthor and I are writing a paper using survey data. We didn’t collect the data; we paid a survey organization to do it. We’ll credit the organization in our paper, but we can’t be sure the data are real; we didn’t collect the data ourselves; and we don’t know all the people on the data chain. Political science isn’t like physics where the list of coauthors includes everyone from the lab assistants to the P.I. to the guy who sets up the magnets on the accelerator.

13 Comments

  1. Claire says:

    Some guidelines for authorship explicitly mention that collecting data on its own does not merit authorship. I cam across this in the context of coding written texts in an international project, and we discussed how to handle this. The coders are acknowledged in the data documentation. Sometimes, however, restrictions on space or the number of references that can be included in a paper mean we don’t cite data… but still, some acknowledgement would have been appropriate!

    • jrkrideau says:

      Long ago, when I was a grad student in Psych, I was paid to collect data and I did not expect an authorship. It was trivial work. If I’d done some more extensive conceptual work then I’d have expected second or third author. Clearly depends on the discipline.

      I once was reading a paper about an international study of bees (at least 3 continents and 5 or 6 countries) and there were FIFTY authors! Depends on the discipline.

  2. Thomas says:

    There’s something off about this to me, which it would have been nice to see addressed directly. What was the graduate student’s incentive to manipulate the data? Only Hart seems to have a motive to do it. Moreover, if the student gets to retain his or her anonymity, what incentive is there not to do this when a professor asks you to? Also, isn’t a little more than “hilarious” that Harts claims to have done things he now claims he didn’t do because it turns out they were done badly?

    All in all, the way this is being dealt doesn’t suggest anyone is taking responsibility. What it’s really doing is reproducing the all-purpose excuse for shoddy work: “My graduate student did it! I won’t tell you who it is because I don’t want to ruin their career.” Sorry, the buck either stops with you or gets passed on. If you want to cover your graduate student’s ass (so that they end up someone else’s lab do it again) then you’re going to have to take the fall yourself.

    Even Bernie Madoff had the decency to do that! As I’ve said before, methodology is a confessional genre.

  3. Maybe Hart would have ended up happier if he had written the paper in the imperfect (just as the paper itself proposes: “Participants who described a positive experience using the imperfective aspect, which implies ongoing progression, subsequently reported more positive mood and greater happiness than did participants who described a positive experience using the perfective aspect, which implies completion”). For one thing, that would have allowed for convenient insertions “when” or “but”:

    “I WAS measuring away, analyzing the data, going about my business, publishing my findings, getting citations, WHEN it came to my attention that a certain unnamed and uncredited graduate student had been manipulating the data.”

    Like Thomas, I wonder what’s missing from the story. I don’t see the grad student’s motive, unless Hart was involved or something else was going on.

  4. Junpeng Lao says:

    Well, this is also an old play from Chinese Government official playbook – whenever something bad got caught, the faults are always on some “unnamed temporary worker on a nonofficial contract”

  5. Ed says:

    So, what’s the issue with just listing the data collector in a thanks to or a reference section? You could start a new precedent.

  6. Nate Frey says:

    Among other things, I am skeptical of the claim that a grad student who collected the data in the context of psychology actually contributed nothing worthy of coauthorship to the paper. I realize that authorship norms vary, but I feel like usually if your grad student collected the data, they probably gave you notes that went into your data and methods section beyond the initial direction you gave them in collecting the data, and quite possibly even some overall impressions of the data that you used in the analysis, and at that point you’re getting dangerously close to unambiguous coauthorship. Obviously we can’t know for sure, but… the whole story is pretty sketchy.

    • jrkrideau says:

      Way back in my day as an undergrad/grad psych student, simple data collection might receive an acknowledgement/thank you, if that; unless the data collection effort was extraordinary or you had contributed more than just data collection.

      Conventions differ and they may even vary by sub-disciplines.

      I did a bit of number crunching for a medical staffing paper a few years ago and much to my surprise came out as 4th or 5th author. In psychology I might have gotten an acknowledgement, but I was not expecting one.

  7. jim says:

    The interesting thing to me is that the quotes from the paper imply that the author personally collected the data. That’s different than not giving a personal acknowledgement to the data collector. It’s actually a misrepresentation of data acquisition methods.

  8. “Political science isn’t like physics where the list of coauthors includes everyone from the lab assistants to the P.I. to the guy who sets up the magnets on the accelerator.”

    Perhaps it should be.

    For transparency, to ensure academic credit, and to avoid inappropriate gift authorship, we simply list all involved and what they did. Writing, analysis, data collection etc.

    By removing “authorship” and just describing what each involved individual did, perhaps these issues could be avoided.

    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/bjs.10151/abstract

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