From the Archives of Scientific Fraud – Diederik Stapel

1It is difficult to make a fast and spectacular career in the world of science. This truism does not apply to Dutch social psychologist Diedrick Stapel. “Wunderkind,” “bright, thrusting young star of Dutch social psychology,” “charismatic, friendly and incredibly talented”, “a leader with great dedication to his students and colleagues.” These are just a few of many praises he received. Nobody spared him honors as well -– in 2009 he received the Career Trajectory Award from the Society of Experimental Social Psychology. During his years of power and glory, he was appreciated not only by other scientists and students. He also made regular TV appearances and was one of the most known psychologists in the Netherlands. Too good to be true? Unfortunately – yes. Just as his research results published in dozens of scientific articles.

Diederick Stapel’s career was ruined in one day in September 2011 when the Tilburg University’s press release was published. It found about Stapel’s frauds.

The Executive Board of Tilburg University has suspended Prof. D.A. Stapel from his duties with immediate effect. Dr Stapel, who is a Professor of Cognitive Social Psychology and Dean of the Tilburg School of Social and Behavioral Sciences, has committed a serious breach of scientific integrity by using fictitious data in his publications.[1]

Press release also contained information about the special commission appointed by the rector of Tilburg University to investigate which Stapel’s works were based on fabricated data. The first report was published after a month, on 31st of October 2011. The report described how Stapel falsified his data, and estimated the scale of his fraud. As prof. Pim Levelt, chair of the committee that investigated Stapel’s work said:

“We have some 30 papers in peer-reviewed journals, where we are actually sure that they are fake, and there are more to come.”[2]

The disclosure of the scale of Stapel’s falsifications forced Philip Eijlander, the Rector of Tilburg University, to reveal his will (at a press conference) to pursue criminal prosecution for Stapel. It seemed that Stapel could be a new world record holder in the number of falsified research papers in psychology.

The reality, however, exceeded all expectations. Retraction Watch reported, thatthe up-to-date number of retracted articles is now 54 plus additional ten PhD dissertations written by his students.[3] We still cannot be sure that those are all of his falsified articles. Yes, Diederik Stapel is unquestionably one of the record holders in scientific fraud – beaten perhaps only by Japanese anesthesiologist Yoshitaka Fujii (fabricated at least 170 retracted scientific papers)[4] and an anthropologist from Netherlands Mart Bax (published at least 60 fake research papers)[5]. Certainly he is the number one in psychology. But how is it possible that he could deceive so many for so long?

As I have wrote earlier, Stapel was known as a charismatic leader, greatly dedicated to his students and colleagues. He used his power and prestige in a very sophisticated way. He was very helpful during the early phases of his student’s research; he told him that data would be collected at local secondary schools where he was supposed to have some connections. Coming back with the data Stapel would then advise his young researcher to “be careful, as you have gold in your hands.”[6] In the end it felt like he was doing them a favor. Stapel controlled the whole process of collecting and analyzing data in his lab, and when sometimes students asked to see completed questionnaires or the raw data, they were often given excuses. For example they were told that neither the schools nor he had enough room to store them. But what helped him most – was a simple lack of scientific scrutiny and skepticism.

Stapel produced articles that are sometimes called “sexy studies”—because of their supposed potential to attract media attention. For example, one of his faked studies “showed,” that meat eaters are more selfish and less social than vegetarians. This was widely popularized by Dutch media[7]. In another article he “proved” that disordered physical environment promotes stereotyping and discrimination[8]. He knew what media expect and he skillfully produced appropriate results.

Apart from severe damage he had caused to science and to public confidence in scientific method, the individuals most directly affected were his students (both from masters and doctoral courses). Significant numbers of their dissertations were believed to be based on fabricated data. Similarly, as in the Breuning case, he had caused serious harm to young scientists at the beginning of their careers.

How did Stapel end up? Well, he initially admitted his guilt, repented and apologized pointing out on some of his motives:

I failed as a scientist. I adapted research data and fabricated research. Not once, but several times, not for a short period, but over a longer period of time. I realize that I shocked and angered my colleagues, because of my behavior. I put my field, social psychology in a bad light. I am ashamed of it and I deeply regret it.

… I think it is important to emphasize that I never informed my colleagues of my inappropriate behavior. I offer my colleagues, my PhD students, and the complete academic community my sincere apologies. I am aware of the suffering and sorrow that I caused to them. … I did not withstand the pressure to score, to publish, the pressure to get better in time. I wanted too much, too fast. In a system where there are few checks and balances, where people work alone, I took the wrong turn. I want to emphasize that the mistakes that I made were not born out of selfish ends.[9]

In June 2013 Stapel agreed, in a settlement with the prosecution, to perform 120 hours of community service and to lose the right to some benefits associated with his former job (equivalent to 1.5 years of salary). This allowed him to avoid further criminal prosecution. What helped his case greatly was the fact that he voluntarily returned his PhD to the University of Amsterdam, stating in a letter that his conduct “does not fit with the duties associated with a doctorate.”[10]

You might think that such a clever avoidance of responsibility would be enough to close the case, or would be enough to close a career of scientific fraudster. But you’d be wrong. As in Pankova’s case, our hero resurfaces again – this time in a shameless attempt to use his situation to… continuing his career. Not as a scientist, but as a con man. In 2013 he appears again in TEDx Maastricht Brain Train program, where he gives a lecture entitled What I Lost: The importance of being connected[11]. But there is more. In 2012 he published his… memoirs! Yes, it is not a mistake. A book called Ontsporing (English: derailment) is a detailed description of events that lead to one of the largest scientific frauds. We are far from recommending purchasing of his book (we believe that financial support for fraudster is, well, immoral). We do however encourage you to read it. You might find it interesting for at least a couple of reasons. First of all, just like network security officers can learn a lot from computer hackers, everyone who wants to know how to improve the control mechanisms in science should devote a lot of attention to this book. In his description of the academic realities of social psychology Stapel points out virtually complete absence of any control structures:

Nobody ever checked my work. They trusted me… I did everything myself, and next to me was a big jar of cookies. No mother, no lock, not even a lid… Every day, I would be working and there would be this big jar of cookies, filled with sweets, within reach, right next to me — with nobody even near. All I had to do was take it. (p. 164)

Another good reason to read (not buy) the book is to learn about the motives of the fraudster. Well, at least those motives he reveals. The third reason – the book is an excellent example of how our brains rationalize, self-clean and directs our thoughts in order to protect our good self-image and self-integrity. In the Dutch media, Stapel’s motivations for publishing Ontsporing were widely questioned and ridiculed. The book, however, is still a fascinating illustration of a narcissistic personality craving for attention or partial rehabilitation.Image

You might already be tired, but it is still not the end of the story of this giant fraud. The biggest surprise appears in the last, an unexpectedly beautiful, poetic chapter of his book. As many literary critics noticed, it is composed of sentences that Stapel… copied from the fiction writers Raymond Carver and James Joyce! Furthermore, he presented them without quotes and only acknowledged sources separately in the appendices (p. 314). Mockery? Another ordinary fraud? A hidden message: “be careful, deceivers cannot stop to deceive”? Or nothing but a wretched theft? There is another possibility, which was identified by Sylvain Bernès, who commented one of the notes about Stapel published in Retraction Watch:

Most of the RW posts about Stapel’s retractions are illustrated with the same photo. I’ve now seen 21 times this guy with this mocking smile. Maybe I’m turning paranoid, but I imagine he says: “yeeeeesss, I’m back! I’ve soooooo many papers to retract, you will see me for ever and ever!”[12]

 

[1] Press Release, Prof. Diederik Stapel suspended. Tilburg University, 7 September 2011. Retrieved 1 December 2013 from: http://uvtapp.uvt.nl/fsw/spits.npc.ShowPressReleaseCM?v_id=4082238588785510

[2] Gonzalez, R.T. Psychologist admits to faking dozens of scientific studies. “io9” 11 February 2011.  Retrieved 1 December 2013 from: http://io9.com/5855733/psychologist-admits-to-faking-dozens-of-scientific-studies

[3] Oransky, I. Measure by measure: Diederik Stapel count rises again, to 54. Retraction Watch, 2 August 2013. Retrieved 1 December 2013 from: http://retractionwatch.wordpress.com/2013/08/02/measure-by-measure-diederik-stapel-count-rises-again-to-54/#more-15141

[4] Normile, D. A New Record for Retractions?, Science Insider, American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2 July 2012

[5] Professor faked 61 pieces of research: Volkskrant, DutchNews.nl. 23 September 2013. Retrieved 28 November 2013 from http://www.dutchnews.nl/news/archives/2013/09/professor_faked_61_pieces_of_r.php#sthash.nmcumyZM.dpuf

[6] Levelt Committee Interim Report Regarding the Breach of Scientific Integrity by Prof. D. A. Stapel. Tilburg University, 31 October 2011. Retrieved 17 January 2012. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diederik_Stapel

[7] Meat eaters are selfish and less social. Dutch Daily News, 30 August 2011. Retrieved 1 December 2013 from: http://www.dutchdailynews.com/meat-eaters-selfish-less-social/

[8] Siegwart Lindenberg, S. Coping with Chaos: How Disordered Contexts Promote Stereotyping and Discrimination. Science 332 (6026): pp. 251–253, 8 April 2011.doi:10.1126/science.1201068

[9] Stapel betuigt openlijk ‘diepe spijt’. Brabants Dagblad, 31 October 2011. Retrieved 1 December 2013 from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diederik_Stapel#cite_note-26

[10] Verfaellie, M. & McGwin, J. The case of Diederik Stapel.American Psychological Association December 2011. Retrieved 1 December 2013 from: https://www.apa.org/science/about/psa/2011/12/diederik-stapel.aspx

[11] Retrieved 1 December 2013 from: http://tedxmaastricht.nl/braintrain/speakers2013/

[12] Oransky, I. Measure by measure… Ed. Cited.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s