Tue, Sep 18, 2012 - Page 9 News List

Fraudulent research threatens sanctity of science

Published retractions in scientific journals have increased 1,200 percent over the past decade — a worrying indicator for such a respected field

By Alok Jha  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Yusha

Dirk Smeesters had spent several years of his career as a social psychologist at Erasmus University in Rotterdam studying how consumers behaved in different situations. Did color have an effect on what they bought? How did death-related stories in the media affect how people picked products? Was it better to use supermodels in cosmetics advertisements than average-looking women?

The questions are certainly intriguing, but unfortunately for anyone wanting truthful answers, some of Smeesters’ work turned out to be fraudulent. The psychologist, who admitted “massaging” the data in some of his papers, resigned from his position in June after being investigated by his university, which had been tipped off by Uri Simonsohn from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Simonsohn carried out an independent analysis of the data and was suspicious of how perfect many of Smeesters’ results seemed when, statistically speaking, there should have been more variation in his measurements.

The case, which led to two scientific papers being retracted, came on the heels of an even bigger fraud, uncovered last year, perpetrated by the Dutch psychologist Diederik Stapel. He was found to have fabricated data for years and published it in at least 30 peer-reviewed papers, including a report in the journal Science about how untidy environments may encourage discrimination.

The cases have sent shockwaves through a discipline that was already facing serious questions about plagiarism.

“In many respects, psychology is at a crossroads — the decisions we take now will determine whether or not it remains a serious, credible, scientific discipline along with the harder sciences,” said Chris Chambers, a psychologist at Cardiff University. “We have to be open about the problems that exist in psychology and understand that, though they’re not unique to psychology, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be addressing them. If we do that, we can end up leading the other sciences rather than following them.”

Cases of scientific misconduct tend to hit the headlines precisely because scientists are supposed to occupy a moral high ground when it comes to the search for truth about nature. The scientific method developed as a way to weed out human bias. However, scientists, like anyone else, can be prone to bias in their bid for a place in the history books.

Increasing competition for shrinking government budgets for research and the disproportionately large rewards for publishing in the best journals have exacerbated the temptation to fudge results or ignore inconvenient data.

Massaged results can send other researchers down the wrong track, wasting time and money trying to replicate them. Worse, in medicine, it can delay the development of life-saving treatments or prolong the use of therapies that are ineffective or dangerous. Malpractice comes to light rarely, perhaps because scientific fraud is often easy to perpetrate, but hard to uncover.

The field of psychology has come under particular scrutiny because many results in the scientific literature defy replication by other researchers. Critics say it is too easy to publish psychology papers which rely on sample sizes that are too small, for example, or to publish only those results that support a favored hypothesis. Outright fraud is almost certainly just a small part of that problem, but high-profile examples have exposed a grayer area of bad or lazy scientific practice that many had preferred to brush under the carpet.

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