Scientific Fraud Is Very Difficult

Obvious ethical considerations aside, I’ve never understood scientific fraud from a practical point–it’s a ton of work. You might as well do more experiments. Diederik Stapel (boldface mine):

Sitting at his kitchen table in Groningen, he began typing numbers into his laptop that would give him the outcome he wanted. He knew that the effect he was looking for had to be small in order to be believable; even the most successful psychology experiments rarely yield significant results. The math had to be done in reverse order: the individual attractiveness scores that subjects gave themselves on a 0-7 scale needed to be such that Stapel would get a small but significant difference in the average scores for each of the two conditions he was comparing. He made up individual scores like 4, 5, 3, 3 for subjects who were shown the attractive face. “I tried to make it random, which of course was very hard to do,” Stapel told me.

Doing the analysis, Stapel at first ended up getting a bigger difference between the two conditions than was ideal. He went back and tweaked the numbers again. It took a few hours of trial and error, spread out over a few days, to get the data just right….

Stapel had a student arrange to get the mugs and M&M’s and later load them into his car along with a box of questionnaires. He then drove off, saying he was going to run the study at a high school in Rotterdam where a friend worked as a teacher.

Stapel dumped most of the questionnaires into a trash bin outside campus. At home, using his own scale, he weighed a mug filled with M&M’s and sat down to simulate the experiment. While filling out the questionnaire, he ate the M&M’s at what he believed was a reasonable rate and then weighed the mug again to estimate the amount a subject could be expected to eat. He built the rest of the data set around that number. He told me he gave away some of the M&M stash and ate a lot of it himself. “I was the only subject in these studies,” he said. [study not published]

I’m convinced that scientific fraud is only partially born from desperation. In the second example, it probably would have been as much work to actually run the experiment–though he would run the ‘danger’ of not getting a significant result. At some level, I think you have to want to do this, perhaps even need to do this.


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4 Responses to Scientific Fraud Is Very Difficult

  1. TheBrummell says:

    I agree – faking an entire study, whole-cloth, seems to be about as much work as actually doing a legitimate study.
    But nudging a few numbers here and there in an otherwise legitimate (if possibly unexciting or poorly designed) study must be much easier, and presumably accounts for the majority of scientific fraud.

    • onkelbob says:

      I am familiar with one episode where a previous study could not be replicated and so wasted a postdoc’s time for 3 years. Similarly, the Frau has a postdoc applying to her lab complaining of the same situation. So while a little fudged data seems innocuous, the cumlative effect can be profound. (BTW – both these episodes are in Top 10 NIH funded institutions, not some podunk directional state school)

  2. coloncancercommunity says:

    Personally, I haven’t run into out and out falsification and fabrication of data from day-1. That just seems like an insane waste of time and resources for anyone to ever bother. Sadly, I have seen a few cases where investigators needed a certain result to justify their funding and I have seen instances where investigators appeared to “push” grad students and post-docs to bring them the results they desired. It would be wonderful if in real life, we could create our own reality based on the hypothesis for which we are requesting research funding. But the physical world does not bend to our funding needs.

    Whereas I don’t think this is “business as usual” for most investigators, I saw enough in my 15 years at the bench to know the problem exists and its presence is not insignificant. Retractions are up – in part – because I think investigators are desperate. A tweak here and a tweak there – who’s to know? Trouble is, this means the results may not be reproducible and they certainly aren’t accurate. Also, if you can’t trust the published data, how can you build a new knowledge base on a foundation of shifting sand?

  3. bluefoot says:

    I know a guy who faked an entire PhD thesis. The company he was at allowed him to work part time for several years while getting his PhD, and at the end he had to turn in a copy of the thesis. It was so much effort, it would have been MUCH easier to just do the work AND he would have had his doctorate at the end. I don’t know why he thought he wouldn’t get caught, especially since at least two members of his putative “committee” had ties to the company. But I also know he faked data in at least one other job he was at, so perhaps it is just pathological.
    I keep meaning to check on LinkedIn to see whatever happened to that guy….

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