Sanli Sanli 27 April 2013

A close encounter with Diederik Stapel and his act of fraud

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Posted in Ethics, High-impact journals, politics

Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, a staff writer at Science magazine, has written an elegant article in the New York Times about the Dutch psychologist Diederik Stapel. The scientific misconduct of Stapel, including fabrication of data for at least 30 publications, outraged the scientific community a couple of years ago. At that time Stapel was the dean of the social and behavioral sciences faculty at the Tilburg university. He returned his [cum laude] Ph.D. title to the University of Amsterdam in November 2011, noting that his “behavior of the past years are inconsistent with the duties associated with the doctorate.”

The article of Bhattacharjee looks at Stapel’s story from a different perspective. It looks deeper into what has turned an enthusiastic talented young scientist into a cheating salesman. Many of the corners that he sheds light on are not specific to the Stapel’s case and are still serious vulnerabilities the whole of scientific practice of these days. I just quote a few passages here but strongly recommend reading the original article:

…Each case of research fraud that’s uncovered triggers a similar response from scientists. First disbelief, then anger, then a tendency to dismiss the perpetrator as one rotten egg in an otherwise-honest enterprise. But the scientific misconduct that has come to light in recent years suggests at the very least that the number of bad actors in science isn’t as insignificant as many would like to believe…

…Stapel did not deny that his deceit was driven by ambition. But it was more complicated than that, he told me. He insisted that he loved social psychology but had been frustrated by the messiness of experimental data, which rarely led to clear conclusions. His lifelong obsession with elegance and order, he said, led him to concoct sexy results that journals found attractive. “It was a quest for aesthetics, for beauty — instead of the truth,” he said.

…In his early years of research — when he supposedly collected real experimental data — Stapel wrote papers laying out complicated and messy relationships between multiple variables. He soon realized that journal editors preferred simplicity. “They are actually telling you: ‘Leave out this stuff. Make it simpler,’ ” Stapel told me. Before long, he was striving to write elegant articles…

…What the public didn’t realize, he said, was that academic science, too, was becoming a business. “There are scarce resources, you need grants, you need money, there is competition,” he said. “Normal people go to the edge to get that money. Science is of course about discovery, about digging to discover the truth. But it is also communication, persuasion, marketing. I am a salesman. I am on the road. People are on the road with their talk. With the same talk. It’s like a circus.” He named two psychologists he admired — John Cacioppo and Daniel Gilbert — neither of whom has been accused of fraud. “They give a talk in Berlin, two days later they give the same talk in Amsterdam, then they go to London. They are traveling salesmen selling their story.”…


I think this is an article every scientist and policymaker should read and think with himself, what is he doing to prevent such cases from happening again and again?

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  1. Unregistered

    30 Apr 2013 10:18, Bingo Crepiscule

    Thanks for pointing out.

    Diederik Stapel does not seem to have the slightest clue about science, if his quest was for beauty over truth. And if he says that beauty and truth in science are mutually exclusive.

    Further, there is no great harm in being a salesman, maybe a touch irritating for colleagues and audiences at presentations and in discussions. But it is the ‘snake oil salesmen’ like Stapel who hawk fraudulent and questionable goods, who are dangerous and despicable.

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