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What to Do About Scientific Fraud in Psychology?

Five Golden Rules for Conducting Ethical Research

By Mark van Vugt

Is scientific fraud on the rise among academic psychologists? If so, what should our scientific community do about this?

After the high profile case of Marc Hauser, the Harvard psychologist found guilty of serious scientific misconduct there is the recent case of my colleague, Diederik Stapel, a social psychology professor in the Netherlands who has been suspended by his university after admitting to have fabricated experimental data over a prolonged period. [1]

The extent of his fraud is yet unclear but it has produced shock waves among the international social psychology community. Stapel was the poster boy of Dutch social psychology, having published in the major psychology journals, and receiving various grants and prestigious awards for his research on social cognition and stereotyping. In a recent article published in Science, he and his colleagues showed that in a messy environment (a dirty railway station) White participants were more prejudiced against a Black person. The authenticity of these results is now being investigated...

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How common is scientific fraud? It is not all that clear but a recent survey among scientists suggests that  thankfully it is rare. Only 2% of scientists admitted to fabricating or falsifying data. But 14% said that they had personal evidence of such behavior in their colleagues, suggesting that it is underreported.[2 ]

There are to my knowledge no specific data about psychology and so there is no reason to believe that it is more common in our discipline than in others. Yet are there any lessons to be learnt from these fraud cases to help us tackle academic cheating.

Rule 1# Support Whistle-Blowers

The Hauser and Stapel cases came to light because of suspicions raised by research assistants and junior colleagues who were working in the labs of these professors. In doing so they were putting their own careers at risk and so their employers have an obligation to protect them. Having an impartial ethics officer in the Department might encourage colleagues to report suspected misconduct.

Rule 2# Avoid Deception

The field of social psychology has unfortunately a bit of a reputation problem because social psychologists routinely deceive subjects in their studies. Remember the Milgram obedience experiments in which participants falsely believed they were administering electric shocks to fellow participants. It is standard practice in social psychology. But this means that junior social psychologists are being trained to deceive people and this might be a first violation of scientific integrity. It would be good to have a frank discussion about deception in our discipline. It is not being tolerated elsewhere so why should it be in our field.

Rule #3 Publicize Only Published Findings

Modern Science is Big Media Business. There are huge pressures on getting out your research as quickly as you can before someone beats you to it. And so psychologists present their findings in the media even before a scientific paper is written, peer-reviewed, and published. This malpractice contributed to the downfall of Satoshi Kanazawa, the former blogger at Psychology Today, who reported unpublished research data showing that Black Women are physically less attractive. It also happened to Stapel and colleagues who got huge press for unpublished data showing that meat-eaters are selfish and unkind. There is a suspicion that Stapel also made up these results.

Rule #4 Acknowledge (and Recognize) People's Contributions

In various science disciplines it is required to acknowledge for each individual author what their personal contribution to the project was so that it is clear how the work was divided and who is responsible for which part of the research project. In psychology journals this practice is not yet standard. And so there is some diffusion of responsibility among authors which might increase opportunities for fraudulent behavior.

Rule #5 Introduce Ethics and Hand Out Team Prizes and Awards

Perhaps ultimately it is through training our psychology students into doing ethically sound research that we can tackle scientific fraud. This is no easy feat. Research suggests that 75% of university students engage in some form of academic dishonesty.[3].

Yet we humans are a cooperative species and psychological science is a cooperative discipline. Only by accepting that scientific progress is not about individuals and their personal achievements but about groups of researchers working together and trusting each other to be open and frank about their results can we tackle this.

Perhaps it would be good to rethink the system of awarding prizes and grants to excellent individual scientists. In business and team sports, individuals do not win prizes but groups of people do. Why should it be different in psychological science?
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[1] http://news.sciencemag.org/scienceinsider/2011/09/dutch-university-sacks-social.html


[2] Fanelli, W. (2009). How many scientists fabricate and falsify research? A systematic review and meta-analysis of survey data. PLoS One, 4 (#5), 1-11.

[3] McCabe, D. L (1993). Academic dishonesty: Honor codes and other contextual influences. Journal of Higher Education 64, 522-38.

 

Mark van Vugt is a professor of social and organizational psychology at the VU University Amsterdam and a research associate at Oxford University.

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