Faking it!
February 17, 2012, 12:15 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

A key principle of psychology research that makes it a science is that it is based on fact and is not a fictional piece of work.

Dr. Diederik Staple was a respected psychology scientist at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, specialising in social psychology. He held the position of Dean of social and behavioural sciences at the university. His research area, studied interactions between self-image and the perceptions people hold of stimuli in the world surrounding them. He was recently expelled from his university because it was revealed by an enquiry committee that over more than ten years he had manipulated and fabricated data in his studies, putting into doubt at least 30 published papers. Dr. Staple voluntarily returned his title to the university following the interim report and his own admission of committing fraud and deception in his research work.

Staple betrayed colleagues who researched and published papers with him as well as the doctoral students he guided towards their degrees.  He destroyed his own career and adversely affected the life and work of many others around him.  He jeopardised the work of others who cited his papers in their own work, planned experiments on his findings, or relied on these findings to develop theory and support their own arguments.

Staple, a very intelligent academic with good understanding of data and high ability of numerical skills was able to simulate datasets, so they seemed as though they were genuinely collected.  Staple manipulated and fabricated data he collected in order to adapt it to the hypotheses he wanted to support.  Reportedly, Staple almost always refused to submit raw data to the inspection of colleagues and graduate students.

There has been much criticism in psychological research of the practice of keeping data in near secrecy and there has been demand from researchers to share data with other researchers in the field, allowing them to analyse the data and come to their own conclusions.   But this is a very competitive field with the race to publish papers, and the reluctance to submit or share datasets that may help others publish a paper that contradicts their original work.

This blog highlights several issues.  The importance of data in research; a research report tells a factual story, and the data collected is the factual information of a study.  The need for honesty and integrity; the results need to be genuine data, or a report is just a piece of fictional work.  To ensure these issues are addressed, access and analysis of data should be available to all members of a research group, ensuring more than one person actually analyses the data.

Dr Staple received subsidies and funding for his fraudulent projects, and no doubt he was personally paid a huge salary.  He not only disgraced himself, ruined his career, damaged the reputations and careers of others, he tainted the image of the field of psychology and psychological research.  Research is a huge undertaking, with a responsibility to carry it out honestly.



10 Comments so far
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It seems very sad that it took so long for Staples to be caught -according to the Guidelines For Ethical Practice (see: http://www.provost.pitt.edu/documents/GUIDELINES%20FOR%20ETHICAL%20PRACTICES%20IN%20RESEARCH-FINALrevised2-March%202011.pdf), it’s the obligation of all academics to report suspected misconduct, academic or otherwise (and let’s face it, Staples was acting shifty -and no one is 100% right in research all the time). Research into the lack of academic misconduct reporting, has found that the Bystander Effect is to blame for the inaction (fear over losing job, getting a reputation as a troublemaker etc.), and as a result, support systems have since been put in place to help give impetus and reassurance to those uncertain, including organizational ombudsmans (whose job is to provide impartial, confidential advice) and more prominent literature on the topic. One such document can be found here: http://www.ori.hhs.gov/documents/Responding_to_Research_Wrongdoing.pdf
(I found the picture on the cover amusing)
Hopefully these measures will encourage other misconducts to brought forward more swiftly in the future.

Comment by theundergradpsychologist

You make a very good point in your blog and i agree with you that researchers have a duty to provide honest results. How are we supposed to make proper advancements in science with fake results? Publishing fake data is incredibly damaging, especially if more research has developed on the basis of this fake data. Imagine the fake data is the foundations of a house, once the foundations are realised to be flawed the whole house is also flawed. Researchers need to archive and share all of their data and methodology so that they can be subject to careful scrutiny of other researchers, giving them an opportunity to replicate the results. In my opinion providing evidence of your results should not only be an expectation but an obligation, research should not be granted publishing unless this evidence is provided. Research should never come to a close, there should always be an opportunity to develop it.

Comment by psychblogld

Scientific misconduct and faking results is a huge problem for science because it is quite often so hard to detect and the consequences can be hugely detrimental to future research in that area. However, I do feel at least a little sympathy towards researchers who falsify their data, because the pressure they must have felt in order to take such a risk was probably very high.

Scientific research is, in general, highly competitive; career progression often depends on how many papers you’ve had published and whether they were published in a respected journal or not. The old “publish or perish” issue. This is especially problematic as only papers that show a positive result get published. This means that not only does a successful career-oriented researcher have to produce mass volumes of work, they also have to make sure that their study finds an effect. With this in mind it is unsuprising that a desperate researcher, having just found that their treatment has no effect, and also that their main competitor for a better job opening has 30 published papers while they only have 29; might just be tempted to fudge their data a little.

So perhaps, as well as making it easier for people to expose misconduct without fear of losing their jobs (as theundergradpsychologist said above 🙂 ), we should also take action to remove some of the factors that push people into falsifying their data. I think that the scientific community should be focusing more on the quality of published work, rather than the quantity as this would not only alleviate pressure on researchers, but also mean that fewer sub-standard papers will be published.

If we want to be good psychologists and change a problem behaviour the we need to change both the outcomes of that behaviour (likelihood of being found out and reported) and the environmental factors that contributed to that behaviour (an ethos in academia that values quantity over quality). Can we do a behavioural intervention on the whole scientific community?

Comment by psuc1b

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I agree with you here. Falsifying research results is a terrible waste. It has serious knock-on effects for everyone involved. I found a scholarly article the other day which stated that 1.97% percent of all scientific researchers have fabricated, falsified or manipulated their data in some way. With a further 33.7% admitting to carrying out questionable research practises, http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0005738. Such an insane number don’t you think? The only issue with this is to what extent researchers manipulated their data. Would a small amount of manipulation really harm the research? You could argue that you only need a small change to provide yourself with a significant set of results. Whatever the case may be, it will always be unethical.
Well done on this Blog.

Comment by bangorlc25

Great blog which I thought was very thought provoking.
There was a very similar case that happened in the medical world with a paper on autism that suggested MMR vaccines increased the likely hood of a child getting autism significantly Dr AJ Wakefield. F. et al (1998). Following this millions of pounds were spent on research to disprove this paper which showed there was no link between getting an MMR vaccine and getting autism. Even now some parents are unwilling to get their child vaccinated due to this miss leading piece of research.
A possible reason for research not being questioned is the position of the researcher. For example they are likely to have power as well as social influence within the university. This makes them able to fire individuals within the school and also reward individuals who support them. Research by Herminia Ibarra and Steven B. Andrews (1993) showed that systematic power had huge influence on co-workers perception of another individual and therefore it is likely that is will affect their resulting behaviour. This can then lead to other researcher’s not questioning research and an attitude that has the qualities of bystander affect. Also due to the number of researchers at a university there is also the possibility of diffusion of responsibility especially with undergraduate students who are likely to believe it is not there place to get involved with miss representations of data.

Comment by danshephard

Just as people put faith in Doctors and other public services, we also put our faith into research and investigators to provide honest and reliable data ultimately coming to some form of positive outcome whether that is a contribution to society or expanding on an unknown topic.
Your blog identifies a clear message of the level of trust we bestow onto people and more importantly into researchers. From the level of experience and qualifications Dr Staple had it is no wonder his words were not put into question with supporting the idea of Authority Figures. This case provides some form of support that even within the world of psychology we are still susceptible to conforming to Authority Figures without question, taking their position as guarantee rather than our own evidence.
Although it is not directly linked but the case of the mother who faked her own sons illness comes to mind when reading this, despite not being a professional and I understand that is the point of the blog I feel it stands to emphasises the extreme depth a person will go to maintain a lie and display false information. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/8472655.stm I just wanted to bring to light that it is not just Researchers like Dr Staple who present false information but also the patients themselves. It’s a good job both of these individuals have received what is owed them after presenting false information and causing unjust time wasting to people around them.
You conclude you blog in a professional manor identifying the messages brought to light in your blog, rounding up your argument clearly and bringing your opinion on the matter to a precise method. Well done.

Comment by psuc15

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