What’s an Academic Fraud?

I recently discovered I am an academic fraud. Now, I am sure there must be people out there whose immediate response is “of course you are”, “knew it” or “I am not surprised”, but I was. 

Admittedly, what amounts to fraud when publishing as an academic isn’t always entirely clear to me – which, to some,will probably suffice to consider me suspect already (if not guilty-till-proven-innocent). I do get the extremes: If one writes up a truly new academic study giving the full account of the 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 examples.

  • Earlier this month, at the Editorial Board Meeting of the Academy of Management Journal, the editor reported that the journal would now start screening every submitted article for plagiarism. The software turns up whether parts of the text have been copied from earlier publications, including articles by the same author (in a case of self-plagiarism). After this, a fellow board member asked “can we access the same software to pre-screen our own articles before submitting them?” There wasn’t a murmur or hint of discontent in the room following this question, but I found it strange and uneasy. If you copy a piece of text, then pre-screen it and the software tells you you would be found out, you rewrite it a bit plugging in a few synonyms here and there and then it is ok and no longer considered fraud and plagiarism?!
  • Geert Hofstede, one of the most highly cited social scientists ever (citations are considered a signal of “impact” in our academic world, and I seem to remember him once telling me that he had more citations than Karl Marx…), became famous for developing dimensions of national cultural differences. He published these dimensions left-right-and-centre – in academic journals, magazines and books – which greatly contributed to their and his exposure. He nowadays would be covered in tar and feathers and chased out of the ivory tower for self-plagiarism?
  • Situation A: PhD student A copies a paragraph leading up to one of his hypotheses from a working paper by someone else he found on the web, without citation. Situation B: PhD student B copies a summary of a previously published academic article from a third, published paper that summarised the same article. Situation C: likewise, but with a citation to that third article, but no quotation marks. Situation D: likewise, but with citation and quotation marks. Who should get kicked out of the programme? At London Business School we have already dealt with situations A and B (the students were chased out), and D of course, but I am left wondering what we’d do in situation C.
  • An academic – and an obvious fan of the Matthew Effect – buys 20,000 followers on Twitter. Yes, if you didn’t know, buying (fake) twitter followers is possible and easy. In fact, yesterday, I learned it is as cheap as chips. Yesterday, the Sunday Times covered the tale of an aspiring English celebrity who bought about 20,000 followers on Twitter to boost her profile. It just cost her a few hundred pounds/dollars. And, in fact, it sort of worked; she did raise her profile. But when she was found out – which isn’t actually that easy – she was ridiculed and quickly chased back to the dubious and crowded ranks of the British B-celebrities. But what would we do? How would we react to an academic buying 20,000 “followers”? Tar and feathers or applause for bringing the Matthew Effect to practice?

I am – apparently – a shameless self-plagiarising fraud because I sometimes get approached by business magazines who say “we read your blog post X and would like to republish it in our magazine”. And if they’re half decent (even by business magazine standards), I tend to say “yes”… In fact, I sometimes make the suggestion myself; when some magazine asks me “would you like to write an article on X for our wonderful magazine?” I usually say “no (way), but chapter X from my book would suit you well. Feel free to republish that”. Some acknowledge it was previously published; some don’t.

And, frankly, I don’t really care, and I will probably do it again. If it is my work, my copy-right, the magazine is fully aware of it, and it doesn’t harm the reader (they will know if they’ve seen it before, and otherwise they probably didn’t, or they might suffer from an enviable dose of business magazine amnesia), I won’t fear or dodge the tar and feathers. In fact, who knows, you may have read this very same post before!


Retractions and Fraud in Strategy and Organization Theory

[H/T to several folks on Facebook talking about this: Nicolai Foss, Russ Coff, Marcel Bogers etc.]

We’ve talked about the extensive fraud of Diederik Stapel before, but apparently there have been retractions even closer to home: the journal Strategic Organization retracted an article.  And, over at the blog Retraction Watch there is an active discussion about Dirk Smeesters’ retractions and recent resignation.   A bit more in a short Wired magazine piece.  A Nature journal interview with Uri Simonsohn who discovered the Smeesters fraud.


Fraud and the Road to Abilene

Over the weekend, an (anonymized) interview was published in a Dutch national newspaper with the three “whistle blowers” who exposed the enormous fraud of Professor Diederik Stapel. Stapel had gained stardom status in the field of social psychology but, simply speaking, had been making up all his data all the time. There are two things that struck me:

First, in a previous post I wrote about the fraud, based on a flurry of newspaper articles and the interim report that a committee examining the fraud has put together, I wrote that it eventually was his clumsiness faking the data that got him caught. Although that general picture certainly remained – he wasn’t very good at faking data; I think I could have easily done a better job (although I have never even tried anything like that, honest!) – but it wasn’t as clumsy as the newspapers sometimes made it out to be.

Specifically, I wrote “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”. Now, it now seems the “substantial overlap” was merely a part of one column of data. Plus, there were various other things that got him caught.

I don’t beat myself too hard over the head with my keyboard about repeating this misrepresentation by the newspapers (although I have given myself a small slap on the wrist – after having received a verbal one from one of the whistlers) because my piece focused on the “why did he do it?” rather than the “how did he get caught”, but it does show that we have to give the three whistle blowers (quite) a bit more credit than I – and others – originally thought.

The second point that caught my attention is that, since the fraught was exposed, various people have come out admitting that they had “had suspicions all the time”. You could say “yeah right” but there do appear to be quite a few signs that various people indeed had been having their doubts for a longer time. For instance, I have read an interview with a former colleague of Stapel at Tilburg University credibly admitting to this, I have directly spoken to people who said there had been rumors for longer, and the article with the whistle blowers suggests even Stapel’s faculty dean might not have been entirely dumbfounded that it had all been too good to be true after all… All the people who admit to having doubts in private state that they did not feel comfortable raising the issue while everyone just seemed to applaud Stapel and his Science publications.

This reminded me of the Abilene Paradox, first described by Professor Jerry Harvey, from the George Washington University. He described a leisure trip which he and his wife and parents made in Texas in July, in his parents’ un-airconditioned old Buick to a town called Abilene. It was a trip they had all agreed to – or at least not disagreed with – but, as it later turned out, none of them had wanted to go on. “Here we were, four reasonably sensible people who, of our own volition, had just taken a 106-mile trip across a godforsaken desert in a furnace-like temperature through a cloud-like dust storm to eat unpalatable food at a hole-in-the-wall cafeteria in Abilene, when none of us had really wanted to go”

The Abilene Paradox describes the situation where everyone goes along with something, mistakenly assuming that others’ people’s silence implies that they agree. And the (erroneous) feeling to be the only one who disagrees makes a person shut up as well, all the way to Abilene.

People had suspicions about Stapel’s “too good to be true” research record and findings but did not dare to speak up while no-one else did.

It seems there are two things that eventually made the three whistle blowers speak up and expose Stapel: Friendship and alcohol.

They had struck up a friendship and one night, fuelled by alcohol, raised their suspicions to one another. And, crucially, decided to do something about it. Perhaps there are some lessons in this for the world of business. For example, Jim Westphal, who has done extensive, thorough research on boards of directors, showed that boards often suffer from the Abilene Paradox, for instance when confronted with their company’s new strategy. Yet, Jim and colleagues also showed that friendship ties within top management teams might not be such a bad thing. We are often suspicious of social ties between boards and top managers, fearful that it might cloud their judgment and make them reluctant to discipline a CEO. But it may be that such friendship ties – whether fuelled by alcohol or not – might also help to lower the barriers to resolving the Abilene Paradox. So perhaps we should make friendships and alcohol mandatory – religion permitting – both during board meetings and academic gatherings. It would undoubtedly help making them more tolerable as well.


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.