Dutch social psychologist sacked for faking data over a “prolonged period”

On September 7th, Tilburg University officially suspended Diederik Stapel, who heads the Tilburg Institute for Behavioral Economics Research. University Rector Philip Eijlander said that Stapel had admitted to using faked data and said that he would not be allowed to return.

Diederik Stapel

Stapel’s homepage on the Tilburg University website has been removed “by the administrator”.

Mark van Vugt is a Netherlands evolutionary psychologist who currently holds a professorship in psychology at the VU University (Vrije Universiteit) Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and has affiliate positions at the Institute for Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at University of Oxford, UK, and the University of Kent, UK. Mark van Vugt writes about his colleague Diederik Stapel in Psychology Today:

After the high profile case of Marc Hauser, the Harvard psychologist found guilty of serious scientific misconduct there is the recent case of my colleague, Diederik Stapel, a social psychology professor in the Netherlands who has been suspended by his university after admitting to have fabricated experimental data over a prolonged period.

The extent of his fraud is yet unclear but it has produced shock waves among the international social psychology community.

Stapel was the poster boy of Dutch social psychology, having published in the major psychology journals, and receiving various grants and prestigious awards for his research on social cognition and stereotyping. In a recent article published in Science, he and his colleagues showed that in a messy environment (a dirty railway station) White participants were more prejudiced against a Black person. The authenticity of these results is now being investigated…

The Science article that is being investigated is Coping with Chaos: How Disordered Contexts Promote Stereotyping and Discrimination by Diederik A. Stapel and Siegwart Lindenberg, Science 8 April 2011: Vol. 332 no. 6026 pp. 251-253 DOI: 10.1126/science.1201068

But this is not the only article being investigated and there may be a rash of retractions to come.

Science Insider writes:

A Dutch social psychologist whose eye-catching studies about human behavior were fodder for columnists and policy makers has lost his job after his university concluded that some of the data in those studies were fabricated.

Tilburg University today officially suspended Diederik Stapel, who heads the Tilburg Institute for Behavioral Economics Research. But in a TV interview today, university Rector Philip Eijlander said that Stapel had admitted to using faked data and said that he would not be allowed to return.

Stapel has worked at the university, located in southern Netherlands, since 2006. He is known as a prolific researcher and a successful fundraiser. His studies appeared to offer new insights into the workings of the human mind; for instance, a Science paper published in April showed that people are more likely to stereotype or discriminate in messy environments.

In the TV interview, Eijlander says he was first contacted on 27 August by “junior researchers” in Stapel’s lab who alleged that his conduct was fraudulent. Stapel immediately admitted that there was “something strange” in his papers, Eijlander says, and “yesterday, he told me that there are faked data.” The university has asked Willem Levelt, a psycholinguist and former president of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, to lead a panel investigating the extent of the alleged fraud. Eijlander says that all “tainted papers” will be retracted.

As to the whistleblowers, Eijlander told the television interviewer that “I have a lot of respect for them, because they found it very difficult.”

Just last week, Stapel made headlines with a press release claiming that thinking of eating meat makes people “more boorish” and less social. The announcement, which said that “meat brings out the worst in people,” raised eyebrows because the study hadn’t yet been written up, let alone published.

Roos Vonk, a psychologist at Radboud University Nijmegen and a collaborator on the study, wrote on her blog today that she believes the latest study is likely among those based on fabricated data. She writes that her conclusion is based on the fact that, although the results had been collected by Stapel’s group, “when we discussed [them], I thought it was odd that Diederik didn’t mention the name of his assistant.” But at the time, she writes, the possibility of fraud didn’t occur to her.

Roos Vonk writes further as she apologises on her blog

I regret very much that this has happened and I will do everything what I can so that trust in the scientific work within social psychology will recover. It is conceivable that this extensive lapse of a few colleagues effects the reputation of our entire profession. I understand that this way can work, but I want to stress that this is a single exception  probably much more shocking and shameful for me and my colleagues than for outsiders, because we all in our education are imbued with the importance of integrity.

An interesting UPDATE from Retraction Watch:

An alert Retraction Watch reader has pointed us to a 1999 paper by Stapel with the impossibly ironic title: Framed and misfortuned: identity salience and the whiff of scandal.”

In the article, which appeared in the European Journal of Social Psychology, Stapel and two colleagues reported the results of survey they’d conducted of Dutch psychologists in the wake of a major plagiarism scandal involving an unidentified Dutch clinical psychologist (“we decided to use neither the name of the person who was accused of plagiarism nor the university to which he was affiliated,” they wrote).

Put briefly, the researchers claimed to have found (rather unsurprisingly) that hows psychologists identified themselves professionally dictated how strongly they were affected personally by the scandal. Money quote:

Whether social psychologists view an article about a plagiarist clinical psychologist as relevant or irrelevant to the self may thus be determined by whether their social identity is narrowly defined (‘social  psychologists’), so as to exclude the plagiarist, or broadly define (‘psychologists’) to include the plagiarist.

Stapel’s group also showed that psychologists from the accused’s own university felt the shame of his alleged misdeeds more than those from other institutions.

And from what Roos Vonk has written it would seem that his collaborators indeed feel a stronger sense of shame than others.

It would seem that much of the research by Diederik Stapel will now be investigated and a number of his papers are likely to be retracted. In addition to the Science paper which is already under investigation some of his other earlier publications are:

I wonder whether cognitive psychology is particularly subject to the faking of data – possibly because faking is relatively easy when the data are so often subjective and so little of it is required to be reproducible or quantitative.
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4 Responses to “Dutch social psychologist sacked for faking data over a “prolonged period””

  1. Sean Says:

    The final paragraph of your blog (as well as one of the tags for this piece: “cognitive psychology fraud”) is not quite accurate. As stated in the headline, Diederik Stapel was a SOCIAL psychologist (not a COGNITIVE psychologist). Your statement that “data are so often subjective and so little of it is required to be reproducible or quantitative” does NOT apply to cognitive psychology. Cognitive psychologists study domains such as memory, language, judgment and decision making, etc. The overwhelming majority of cognitive researchers deal exclusively with objective and quantitative data.

  2. Tilburg University on terms of reference for Diederik Stapel misconduct inquiry « The k2p blog Says:

    [...] the suspension (pending dismissal) of Diederik Stapel for faking data, Tilburg University has published the terms of reference of the Levelt investigation [...]

  3. H Says:

    Wow, what an arrogance from Sean. How about social psychologists deal with quantitative and objective data? Stapel is quite a different case (by the way, he indeed was a social cognition researcher).

  4. Diederik Stapel faked at least 30 papers « The k2p blog Says:

    [...] Related: Dutch social psychologist sacked for faking data over a “prolonged period” [...]

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