Researcher Caught Up in Fraud Case Punches Back

When a researcher fudges data or engages in other fraudulent behavior, among those most wronged are the collaborators who did nothing wrong. Often there are many. Their reputations and careers can suffer horribly; they experience a horrible betrayal by someone they put enormous trust in; and they feel compelled to remain silent, lest they court legal trouble or draw undeserved fire.

Today, one such collaborator decided to speak out, loud and clear. The result is an extraordinary glimpse at the tangled loyalties, fates, and ambiguities that surround even a seemingly dead-clear case of scientific misconduct.

This comes via a post at Retraction Watch, a site that tracks retractions of papers for all sorts of reasons, including alleged or proven fraud. The main story was that Erasmus University social psychologist Dirk Smeesters resigned last week when a scientific integrity committee at his university concluded that results in two of his papers were”stastistically highly unlikely.”

Smeesters could not produce the raw data behind the findings, and told the committee that he cherry-picked the data to produce a statistically significant result. Those two papers are being retracted, and the university accepted Smeesters’ resignation on June 21.

Ugly business. Some of the comments at Retraction Watch then added to the ugliness, with unflattering speculations and musings about the integrity of one of Smeester’s co-authors, Camille Johnson, despite that the university explicitly said she wasn’t implicated.

Such speculation is hardly ususual in these cases. I’ve seen worse. Johnson, the co-author whose integrity was being questioned, stayed out of it, for understandable reasons. But Jonathan Levav, who was a co-author with Smeesters on some still unpublished papers, entered the discussion, taking sharp exception to a comment by commenter “SF.” SF’s comment said, among other things, “Guilty by association is not a proper way to go, but I think it’s quite peculiar [that Johnson] worked with both Stapel [another researcher found to have falsified data] and Smeesters.” And at that point Levav had heard enough:

SF, I’m not sure who you are. But it seems like you make a sport out of making allegations by hiding behind anonymity. How ballsy.

I don’t know Cammie Johnson personality, so I’ll leave it to her friends to attest to her honesty. It doesn’t take more than a drop of common sense to see that she was unlucky in her choice of two coauthors. She had no way to know this sad fact about them, any more than the rest of the field did, so LAY OFF.

However, I do intimately know two other people who were burned by Dirk Smeesters: one is my colleague and friend Christian Wheeler (his name isn’t secret, as it’s published on this site). The other is me, Jonathan Levav (until this moment, unpublished). Christian has five papers with Dirk; I have two, both of which are unpublished manuscripts that were invited for revision at the Journal of Consumer Research. Neither one of us ran the questionable studies in these papers, and neither one of is us guilty. We’re associated with Dirk as coauthors, but we’re not guilty. You might find this “peculiar”–that we’re not guilty–but those are the facts. I’m not afraid to say this and I have nothing to be ashamed about, so I don’t have to hide behind an anonymous initial.

Some of you might wonder, how did we not know that something was up? The answer is that it’s not that easy to spot a coauthor who is doctoring data…. Dirk is a nice, intelligent guy, and was an enthusiastic coauthor. He was a good critic of research. He was respected in the field. He also was at Erasmus, which has perhaps the best behavioral lab I had ever seen. So when the data streamed every few months, it was hardly suspicious. Unlike Stapel, Dirk actually ran studies. What he did with the data afterward is what’s in question.

So there you have it, SF, and all the rest of you voyeurs, haters of social psychology, great scholars, crappy scholars, cool people, losers, innocent bystanders, or whoever the fuck is still reading. You have your missing suspect paper, with another researcher to add to the mix of affected (infected?) names.

To all the readers on this site–those who have ranted and those who haven’t–you might want to consider a few things. Dirk Smeesters was a friend to many of us, a very nice guy. Maybe he’s not a friend any longer, but he was for some time. He has a family, and he’s paying a heavy price. Although this is probably deserved, it’s sad for many of us to watch. And although for many of you this whole incident provides much needed entertainment, for those of us caught up in it, the situation has been extremely distressing. I shudder to think how Cammie feels right now; most people would just quit the field in her shoes. Personally I’m over this whole thing now–it’s been a few months since I’ve known–so I feel free to write about it and have my writing cached in cyberspace for posterity (probably a terrible idea). I don’t know what motivated Dirk to do what he did, but I do know that he didn’t have to do it because, in reality, he was smart enough to be a respected scholar without doctoring data. This whole situation plain sucks.

SF, you coward in hiding, before you publicly speculate about people’s careers and judgment, take a deep breath and ask yourself who the hell you think you are to so freely besmirch people’s reputation in a public forum. If you have something to say, stand behind your name. Your NAME. You know Camille Johnson’s name. You know mine.

When I did the reporting to cover the Marc Hauser debacle, I talked to and learned of many people who felt this sort of pain — a searing sense of betrayal combined with a sense of being unfairly blamed, often while their own work was coming under a microscope.

The loyalties and divisions of duties and risks and sacrifices involved in scientific collaboration can be as complex as those in a marriage; the sense of betrayal and devastation can be almost as intense too. The other similarity: It’s extremely hard to know or judge, from the outside, what went amiss on the inside. This opacity does not mean that fraud or clear ethical violations are okay. They never are. But it enormously complicates — some would say renders irresponsible — the act of publicly speculating about the motives of those who find themselves in the gray areas.

Link to Retraction Watch story: Following investigation, Erasmus social psychology professor retracts two studies, resigns « Retraction Watch.

to Levav’s full comment:

4 responses

  1. It’s always fun to self-righteously criticise. It tends to distract one from one’s own shortcomings. It’s why a baying mob is always quick to form whenever someone is caught doing something untoward – it helps us strengthen the distinction between evil people and the righteous (and put ourselves in the camp of the latter). Of course, it is not people who are evil righteous, it is actions.

  2. The report about this alleged misconducted remains shaky, to say the least and may well be nothing more than settling scores between rancorous or individuals or some kind of witch hunt. No details are given about what this ‘massaging’ data means and it is suggested that performing data manipulation equals scientific misconduct. Not only is such misleading, it is simply untrue. For example, log-log transformations is an accepted technique applied to raw data to make certain differences come out better.

    It is also suggested that the fact that the researcher’s raw data are no longer available is part of some conspiracy or proof of his misconduct. That too is misleading and simply untrue. Scientific journals require raw data to be available for only 5 years. The article does not mention that and simply takes over the implicit suggestion that such data should be available indefinitely which is quite absurd. Researchers change employers, computers do crash and sometimes not everything is backed up, so none of what the researcher has said in that context is proof of any wrongdoing.

    Thirdly, as far as the information that is given here, the inconsistencies or even likely impossibility of certain statistical outcomes may well simply be the result of poor research. If you choose the wrong statistical procedures (as simply as assuming that data are normally distributed when in fact they are not) you can arrive at wrong results. There is quite a difference between poor research and research misconduct. If the whistleblower is correct in his/her suggestions that the outcomes are likely wrong, then all it says is that the journal’s peer reviewers in which the studies appeared, either did not do their job, or simply failed to realize the discrepancies. However, on the basis of such shaky suggestions publicly humiliate a researcher and destroy his scientific career, in itself is professional misconduct.

  3. It is my understanding that collaboration means (for example) “the action of working with someone to produce or create something”. The emphasis being on “working with someone”. It is not simply a matter of adding a name, unquestioningly accepting data, or signing off on a manuscript. Collaboration is a significant and time consuming responsibility that should never be assumed lightly given that ones reputation is at stake with every publication, whatever its source. Inattention as an act of neglect signals complicity . . .
    It is a bitter lesson well learned early.

  4. Indeed. Only last January Greenwald reported on Arthur Brisbane and his inquiry regarding the “mob’s” place in questioning what is written.

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