Social Psychology Damned Again

An exhaustive report about research fraud committed by social psychologist Diederik Stapel paints a picture of a field beset by sloppy practices and low standards.

Nov 30, 2012
Dan Cossins

Flickr, sa_ku_raIn a detailed final report about the fraud committed by Dutch researcher Diederik Stapel, three separate investigative panels have heaped further criticism onto the field of social psychology in general. The investigators found that “from the bottom to the top there was a general neglect of fundamental scientific standards and methodological requirements”—a situation that allowed Stapel’s fraud to continue for years.

Several other social psychologists have also come under scrutiny in the past year, and this latest report comes just 2 months after Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman wrote an open letter urging researchers who work on social priming studies to clean up their act. “Your field is now the poster child for doubts about the integrity of psychological research,” he wrote.

With regard to Stapel, who was fired from his position at Tilburg University in September 2011, the report found that he was responsible for data fraud in 55 published papers and 10 PhD theses written by students under his supervision. There were also doubts about another 10 papers, although fraud could not be proven beyond reasonable doubt.

The investigators argued that such misconduct remained undetected for so long because colleagues in the field had not been sufficiently critical of Stapel’s work. And even in papers that were not overtly fraudulent, the panel found serious flaws that led them to conclude that social psychology is a field with a culture of “sloppy” science in which researchers lack a basic understanding of statistics, journal reviewers encourage scientists to leave out unwelcome data, and journals print results that are clearly too good to be true.

“I feel deep, deep remorse for the pain I have caused others. I feel a great deal of sadness, shame, and self-blame,” said Stapel in a statement. “The truth would have been better off without me.”

(Hat tip to ScienceInsider)