Late last month, psychologist Dirk Smeesters of Erasmus University Rotterdam resigned from his post after an investigative committee concluded that it had “no confidence in [his studies’] scientific integrity.” On June 25, ScienceInsider reported that the wrong-doing was first brought to the university’s attention by “an anonymous fraud hunter.” Three days later, the university identified Uri Simonsohn, a social psychologist at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, as the anonymous whistleblower. His technique: a statistical analysis that looks at the effect of removing extreme data, according to a blog post by Richard Gill of Leiden University in the Netherlands, who evaluated the technique.
Simonsohn also notified a US university about another psychology paper flagged by his method as possibly being fraudulent, and the main author on that paper is under investigation and has resigned, he told ScienceInsider. More details about the statistical method—including what kind of inconsistencies it catches, how sensitive it is, and what kind of false positive rate comes with it—are expected very soon. For now, the scientific community is discussing the validity and ethics of the approach.
“There’s a lot of interest in this,” Brian Nosek of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville told ScienceInsider, who added that the method may identify other cases of misconduct in the literature and help the field gain more credibility. On the other hand, he noted, it could turn colleagues against each other and harm reputations and careers in the process. “This is psychology’s atomic bomb,” he said.
“If we really do have a new tool to uncover fraud, then we should be grateful,” added Harvard University psychologist Daniel Gilbert. “But the only difference between a tool and a weapon is in how judiciously they are wielded, and we need to be sure that this tool is used properly, fairly, and wisely.”