Lording the Data – Scientific Fraud

Last week, the New York Times published a news story about psychologist Diederik Stapel, of the Netherlands.  Tilburg University accused him of having committed research fraud  in several dozen published papers, including the journal Science, the official journal of the AAAS.  See Benedict Carey, “Fraud Case Seen as a Red Flag for Psychology Research: Noted Dutch Psychologist, Stapel, Accused of Research Fraud,” New York Times (Nov. 2, 2011).  The Times expressed surprise over the suggestion that psychology is plagued by fraud and sloppy research.  The surprise is that there are not more stories in the lay media over the poor quality of scientific research.  The readers of Retraction Watch, and the Office of Research Integrity’s blog will recognize how commonplace Stapel’s fraud is.

Stapel’s fraud has wide-ranging implications for the doctoral students, whose dissertations he supervised, and for colleagues, with whom he collaborated.  Stapel apologized and expressed his regret, but his conduct leaves a large body of his work, and that of others, under a cloud of suspicion.

Lording the Data

The University committee reported that Stapel had escaped detection for a long time because he was “lord of the data,” by refusing to disclose and share the data.

“Outright fraud may be rare, these experts say, but they contend that Dr. Stapel took advantage of a system that allows researchers to operate in near secrecy and massage data to find what they want to find, without much fear of being challenged.”

Benedict Carey, “Fraud Case,” New York Times (Nov. 2, 2011).  Data sharing is preached but rarely practice.

In a recent publication, Dr. Wicherts and his colleagues, at the University of Amsterdam, reported that two-thirds of his sample of Dutch research psychologists refused to share their data, in contravention of the established ethical rules of the discipline. Remarkably, many of the refuseniks had explicit contractual obligations with their publishing journals to provide data.  Jelte Wicherts, Marjan Bakker, Dylan Molenaar, “Willingness to Share Research Data Is Related to the Strength of the Evidence and the Quality of Reporting of Statistical Results,” PLoS ONE 6(11): e26828 (Nov. 2, 2011)

Scientific fraud seems no more common among scientists with industry ties, which are so often the subject of ad hominem conflict of interest claims.  Instead, fraudfeasors such as Stapel or Hwang Woo-suk are more often simply egotistical, narcissistic, self-aggrandizing, self-promoting, or delusional.  In the United States, litigation, occasionally has brought out charlatans, but it has also resulted in high-quality studies that have provided strong evidence for or against litigation claims.  Compare Hon. Jack B. Weinstein, “Preliminary Reflections on Administration of Complex Litigation” 2009 Cardozo L. Rev. de novo 1, 14 (2009) (describing plaintiffs’ expert witnesses in silicone litigation as “charlatans” and the litigation as largely based upon fraud) with Committee on the Safety of Silicone Breast Implants, Institute of Medicine, Safety of Silicone Breast Implants (Wash. D.C. 1999) (reviewing studies, many of which were commissioned by litigation defendants, and which collectively showed lack of association between silicone and autoimmune diseases).

The relation between litigation and research is one that has typically been approached by self-righteous voices, such as David Michaels and David Egilman, and others who have their own deep conflicts of interest.  What is clear is that all litigants, as well as the public, would benefit from enforcing data sharing requirements.  SeeLitigation and Research” (April 15, 2007) (science should not be built upon blind trust of scientists: “Nullius in verba.”).

The Times article emphasized Wicherts’ research about lack of data sharing, and suggested that data sharing could improve the quality of scientific publications.  The time may have come, however, for sterner measures of civil and criminal penalties for scientists who abuse and waste governmental funding, or who aid and abet fraudulent litigation.

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