Fraud in the ivory tower (and a big one too)

The fraud of Diederik Stapel – professor of social psychology at Tilburg University in the Netherlands – was enormous. His list of publications was truly impressive, both in terms of the content of the articles as well as its sheer number and the prestige of the journals in which it was published: dozens of articles in all the top psychology journals in academia with a number of them in famous general science outlets such as Science. His seemingly careful research was very thorough in terms of its research design, and was thought to reveal many intriguing insights about fundamental human nature. The problem was, he had made it all up…

For years – so we know now – Diederik Stapel made up all his data. He would carefully reiterature, design all the studies (with his various co-authors), set up the experiments, print out all the questionnaires, and then, instead of actually doing the experiments and distributing the questionnaires, made it all up. Just like that.

He finally got caught because, eventually, he did not even bother anymore to really make up newly faked data. He used the same (fake) numbers for different experiments, gave those to his various PhD students to analyze, who then in disbelief slaving away in their adjacent cubicles discovered that their very different experiments led to exactly the same statistical values (a near impossibility). When they compared their databases, there was substantial overlap. There was no denying it any longer; Diederik Stapel, was making it up; he was immediately fired by the university, admitted to his lengthy fraud, and handed back his PhD degree.

In an open letter, sent to Dutch newspapers to try to explain his actions, he cited the huge pressures to come up with interesting findings that he had been under, in the publish or perish culture that exist in the academic world, which he had been unable to resist, and which led him to his extreme actions.

There are various things I find truly remarkable and puzzling about the case of Diederik Stapel.

  • The first one is the sheer scale and (eventually) outright clumsiness of his fraud. It also makes me realize that there must be dozens, maybe hundreds of others just like him. They just do it a little bit less, less extreme, and are probably a bit more sophisticated about it, but they’re subject to the exact same pressures and temptations as Diederik Stapel. Surely others give in to them as well. He got caught because he was flying so high, he did it so much, and so clumsily. But I am guessing that for every fraud that gets caught, due to hubris, there are at least ten other ones that don’t.
  • The second one is that he did it at all. Of course because it is fraud, unethical, and unacceptable, but also because it sort of seems he did not really need it. You have to realize that “getting the data” is just a very small proportion of all the skills and capabilities one needs to get published. You have to really know and understand the literature; you have to be able to carefully design an experiment, ruling out any potential statistical biases, alternative explanations, and other pitfalls; you have to be able to write it up so that it catches people’s interest and imagination; and you have to be able to see the article through the various reviewers and steps in the publication process that every prestigious academic journal operates. Those are substantial and difficult skills; all of which Diederik Stapel possessed. All he did is make up the data; something which is just a small proportion of the total set of skills required, and something that he could have easily outsourced to one of his many PhD students. Sure, you then would not have had the guarantee that the experiment would come out the way you wanted them, but who knows, they could.
  • That’s what I find puzzling as well; that at no point he seems to have become curious whether his experiments might actually work without him making it all up. They were interesting experiments; wouldn’t you at some point be tempted to see whether they might work…?
  • Truly amazing I also find the fact that he never stopped. It seems he has much in common with Bernard Madoff and his Ponzi Scheme, or the notorious traders in investments banks such as 827 million Nick Leeson, who brought down Barings Bank with his massive fraudulent trades, Societe Generale’s 4.9 billion Jerome Kerviel, and UBS’s 2.3 billion Kweku Adoboli. The difference: Stapel could have stopped. For people like Madoff or the rogue traders, there was no way back; once they had started the fraud there was no stopping it. But Stapel could have stopped at any point. Surely at some point he must have at least considered this? I guess he was addicted; addicted to the status and aura of continued success.
  • Finally, what I find truly amazing is that he was teaching the Ethics course at Tilburg University. You just don’t make that one up; that’s Dutch irony at its best.
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11 Comments on “Fraud in the ivory tower (and a big one too)”

  1. @teppofelin says:

    Here’s the Stapel letter translated (I just did it with Google Translate – so plenty of mistakes):

    Statement Diederik Stapel

    October 31, 2011

    In recent weeks I’ve been thinking whether I should respond and, if so, what I have to say. It’s hard to find the right words. The committee has spoken. And now I have and I want to say something, how impossible it is right to say.

    I have failed as a scientist, as a researcher. I’ve updated research and studies feigned. Not once but several times, and not equally, but over a longer time. I realize that through this conduct my immediate colleagues in dismay and anger and I left my field, social psychology, have put in a bad light. I feel ashamed for it and I have great regret.
    Science is about people, it’s teamwork. I have in recent years enjoyed working with many talented, highly motivated colleagues. I committed them to emphasize that I never have been aware of my inappropriate behavior. I offer my colleagues, my doctoral students and the entire academic community, my sincere apologies. I am aware of the suffering and the grief I have caused them.

    Social psychology is a big, interesting, beautiful and strong discipline, provides unique insights into human behavior and therefore still a lot of attention. I made the mistake that I see the truth in my hand I want to put the world and just wanted to make something more beautiful than it is. I have used improper means to the results attractive. In modern science is the ambition level is high and the competition for scarce resources is enormous. In recent years, these pressures become too much for me. I have the pressure to score, to publish, the pressure to always be better, not have faced. I wanted too much too soon. In a system where there is little control, where people often work alone, I am wrong repulsed. I would stress that the mistakes I’ve made, not born of self-interest.

    I realize that there are many questions. My current state constitution does not permit me to answer. I will still have to dig deep to find out why all this happened, what has moved me to do so. I need help I have now also been given.
    Here I want to leave right now.

    Diederik A. Stapel

  2. blabla says:

    Stapel didn’t get caught because he reused his data.

    The following is incorrect:
    “He finally got caught because, eventually, he did not even bother anymore to really make up newly faked data. He used the same (fake) numbers for different experiments, gave those to his various PhD students to analyze, who then in disbelief slaving away in their adjacent cubicles discovered that their very different experiments led to exactly the same statistical values (a near impossibility). When they compared their databases, there was substantial overlap.”

    • profvermeulen says:

      The (interim) report by the committee looking into the fraud at Tilburg University does not go into detail how he was found out. Various newspaper report that he had copied whole columns of his fake databases into other databases. However, I have no inside information whether what these newspaper reported is indeed correct.

      However, this point – exactly how he was found out – is not central to my argument. I am reflecting on why he might have done it and what I find most puzzling about it, irrespective of what finally led to the discovery of the fraud.

  3. Shauna says:

    The second one is that he did it at all. Of course because it is fraud, unethical, and unacceptable, but also because it sort of seems he did not really need it…

    Sure, you then would not have had the guarantee that the experiment would come out the way you wanted them, but who knows, they could.

    But what percentage of the time would they have come out the way he needed in order to be published? As long as our journals, grant sources, and tenure committees keep valuing positive results over null ones – regardless of the skill and hard work that goes into the methods of doing research – there will be incentive for people to cheat. Even if Stapel is the only one cheating on this scale, this system is still immensely damaging to scientific progress. I don’t think the flaws in the system in any way excuse Stapel, but I also don’t think it’s hard to understand his motivation.

    • David Hoopes says:

      “As long as our journals, grant sources, and tenure committees keep valuing positive results over null ones – regardless of the skill and hard work that goes into the methods of doing research – there will be incentive for people to cheat.”

      May be. I certainly agree that there is pressure from journals to either publish positive results or pretend like the results were what you expected. Reminds me of a discussion over at O&M.

      http://organizationsandmarkets.com/2011/11/28/are-we-quacks/

      • Shauna says:

        Thanks for the link. It seems like these problems – publication bias, lack of replication, misunderstanding/misuse of statistics – are common to many scientific fields, and just as damaging, if not more so, than cheating.

  4. ” … he was immediately fired by the university, admitted to his lengthy fraud, and handed back his PhD degree.”

    That is the appropriate remedy for academic fraud. Eastern Michigan University has been a pioneer in “Ethics in Physics.” I took this as a cognate elective for my social science degree, following a BS in criminology, In my research for my term paper, I found that for nearly 1000 years, the “university” always has been an independent legal entity, empowered by charters to look after its own.

    In criminology, the “classical school” of free will and rational choice long ago gave way to about 40 or 50 macro, midrange, and micro theories from anomie and social conflict to differential learning, differential reward, and differential association, and many others. However, white collar crime in general, and academic fraud in particular are classical crimes. They are not commited from a lack of education, or economic opportunity, or retaliation for exploitation, or from association with or avoidance of street gangs, or from fetal alcohol syndrome or XYY chromosomes.

    The classical school never got past government sanctions of imprisonment or execution. Alternatives did come from the business sector. Police and prosecutors complain that firms “sweep problems under the rug” refusing to bring state sanction to fraudsters. Actually, firms do react to fraud and their remedies from repayment to reassignment, realignment, and dismissal can be more powerful.

    The theory of “general deterrence” depends on free will and rational choice — which is why it seldom works for most crimes and harms. (Very few murders are ever pre-meditated despite the arguments of prosecutors who punish the unfortunate attacker of an unfortunate victim.) But in this case, general deterrence can be powerful. Let it be widely known that the consequence for academic fraud is disgrace.

  5. [...] in a previous post I wrote about the fraud, based on a flurry of newspaper articles and the interim report that a [...]

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  7. [...] in a previous post I wrote about a fraud, formed on a flurry of journal articles and a halt news that a cabinet [...]

  8. [...] research underlying it, it ain’t fraud. If you make up the data – emulating the now infamous Diederik Stapel – it is. But sometimes in between, I am not always sure… Let me give you a few potential [...]


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