A sordid story of scientific misconduct

New York Times digs into tale of famous Dutch professor who fabricated data

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Image credit: Flickr/GRAND PARC BORDEAUX


It's always somewhat remarkable when smart people do stupid things -- especially when they know there's a bunch of other smart people around who can catch them.

But for years Dutch behavioral science researcher Diederik Stapel repeatedly got away with the biggest transgression in research -- making up data. The dean of the University of Amsterdam’s School of Social and Behavioral Sciences was an academic star and seemingly above reproach.

The New York Times magazine has a fascinating (and extremely long) piece about Stapel's years-long deception and the suspicions of young graduate students about his research results that eventually led to the professor's downfall.

The writer of the article extensively interviewed Stapel, who, to his credit, doesn't make excuses for his behavior (though his parents try to). What's not to his credit is that he committed research fraud many times over the years, tainting the work of many of the doctoral students whose papers relied on Stapel's bogus data.

Here's what I consider to be the most depressing part of the story. A young professor who was approached by a student suspicious of Stapel's data decides to work with Stapel in order to get a closer look at his methods. He discovered inconsistencies in the data that he was sure meant that Stapel was fabricating data. Then this:

The professor consulted a senior colleague in the United States, who told him he shouldn’t feel any obligation to report the matter.

Now, maybe this senior colleague knew that things don't always end well for whistle-blowers and was trying to spare the young professor from getting in over his head.

But the larger point is that he's condoning fraud by advising the young professor to look the other way. Worse, he's ratifying a system in which a "star" can abuse science because he has power.

Neither of those conditions are fertile ground for any scientific search for the truth.

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