Friday, November 04, 2011

Bad Scientists

As a Dutch researcher living in the USA, I have been following the case of Dutch psychologist Diederik Stapel with increasing interest. In case you had not heard, he was a well-respected professor in Social Psychology at Tilburg University, with many publications in great scientific journals. But he was recently fired because he made up much of his data, and probably manipulated data as well. He has admitted to be fraudulent, and more and more of his papers are now being retracted.

Nature, one of the highest ranked scientific journals, wrote an article about him in their 1 November 2011 issue. Unfortunately, they choose the following title for their article:  "Report finds massive fraud at Dutch universities".

I was not too happy with that title. It sort of implies that many Dutch researchers are fabricating data, instead of just one proven case. OK, he happened to have worked at two other universities, but the title suggests that lot of universities are involved.

Plus, it is not like this is a unique case for the Netherlands. Similar types of fraud have recently been found - or suspected - with researchers such as a scientist from Duke University in the USA. Seven of his papers are already retracted because of duplication of datasets, and because none of his co-workers could reproduce his findings. He also faked a scholarship on a grant application. Interestingly, if you Google his name, you will find many websites describing what a wonderful doctor he is. Then there is the case of a Japanese virologist with over 30 retractions, because of fabrication and recycling of figures. Another researcher from Imperial College in the UK has been found guilty of faking data as a graduate student, somehow got his PhD, but has been publishing unreliable data since, with several papers retracted.

In fact, many other cases of "scientific misconduct" have been in the news lately. If you want to read more about them, you can go to e.g. the Scientific Misconduct Blog, or to the very comprehensive Retraction Watch.

The most fascinating story in this category has to be that of a postdoc at the University of Michigan, who was caught on videotape sabotaging the experiments of a graduate student in his lab.

As a (hopefully good!) scientist myself, it seems hard to believe that there is so much bad science going on. But then, I could imagine that for some of us, the pressure to get grants and to write publications is so hard that they are tempted to tweak or even fabricate some data.

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