A scientific scandal in the Netherlands is causing some embarrassment here in the US. A Dutch researcher has admitted to falsifying data in dozens of social science studies.
One of his studies was published earlier this year by the top American journal, and received attention from a number of American media outlets, including this radio program.
The paper examined how a person’s environment can affect one’s attitudes and behavior. It found that a messy and chaotic environment can promote discriminatory thoughts.
In April, study co-author Siegwart Lindenberg told The World how the study was conducted. Researchers questioned people and watched their behavior at a Dutch train station, during and after a strike by janitors that left the station a mess.
“In the messy condition, people stereotyped a lot more and they actually and they sat down much further from the person who was actually sitting there, when it was a different race,” explained Lindenberg.
But the study’s results are now in question.
Lindenberg’s co-author, Diederik Stapel has admitted to fabricating data in a number of studies in recent years.
Stapel is not speaking to the media right now. His spokesperson says he is too ill.
Siegwart Lindenberg declined to comment on tape, but he did send us an email.
“Stapel and I planned the experiments together and wrote the paper together, but he executed the experiments and did the data analysis. …There was no reason to be suspicious in any way about what he presented to me as the results of the experiments he conducted.”
Stapel’s apparent pattern of fraud was discovered when some of his junior researchers did become suspicious. They reported their concerns to the administration at Tilburg University, where Stapel worked.
The university responded, by suspending Stapel and starting an investigation. Two other universities where Stapel had previously worked also began investigations.
This week, the investigators released their preliminary findings (in Dutch). They found that several dozens of Stapel’s publications contained fictitious data.
The news spread rapidly in the scientific community.
“I’d never suspected anything like this might be going on, not in him, nor in any other colleagues,” said Gerben van Kleef, a social psychologist at the University of Amsterdam.
Van Kleef had never worked with Stapel, but he’s acquainted with the man and his research.
“He was widely published, extremely productive, widely cited, and well respected and even admired by his students,” he said.
But some of those very students may be hurt by Stapel’s behavior. Fourteen of his students’ Ph.D theses are being examined for possibly containing fabricated data.
As for the journal Science, which published Stapel’s research back in April, it has issued what it calls an Editorial Expression of Concern.
That is “basically the first step to alert readers that the paper may have serious problems,” explained journal spokeswoman Kathleen Wren. She said the journal may end up retracting the study depending on the outcome of further investigations.
Meanwhile, investigators in the Netherlands are scrutinizing more than 150 research papers by Diederik Stapel.