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A legendary scientific fraud explains how to stop people like himself

Diederik Stapel
Diederik Stapel
Diederik Stapel

It's not unusual to read stories about science fraud — such as the recent, high profile retraction of a study on changing attitudes towards same-sex marriage — but rarely do you hear from the perpetrators themselves.

Dutch psychologist Diederik Stapel, who faked at least 50 studies during his short career, is different. He had been a rising star in social psychology at Tilburg University in the Netherlands when he was caught in 2011. Since then, he has written a book Derailed (2012) about how and why he manipulated data for years, and he has also granted several media interviews. (Last year, his book was translated into English under a new title, Faking Science.)

Now the Chronicle of Higher Education has a very interesting Q&A with Stapel. In light of the recent same-sex marriage study retraction involving the UCLA PhD candidate Michael LaCour, journalist Tom Bartlett conducted an interview with Stapel, revealing important insights on how to stop future science fraud. Here's what Stapel had to say:

What data manipulators like Stapel and LaCour have in common

I think the problem with some scientists, like LaCour and me, is you’re really genuinely interested. You really want to understand what’s going on. Understanding means I want to understand, I want an answer. When reality gives you back something that’s chaos and is not easy to understand, the idea of being a scientist is that you need to dig deeper, you need to find an answer. Karl Popper [philospher of science] says that’s what you need to be happy with — uncertainty — maybe that’s the answer. Yet we’re trained, and society expects us to give an answer.

... Scientists are in the business, many of them, of trying to find answers. Clear, nice, simple results. If you don’t have those results, it’s more difficult to publish your data. I wanted certainty more badly than others, and perhaps LaCour is similar in that respect.

How pressures in science contributed to Stapel's bad behavior

There’s something about me. And there’s something about the environment. The publication pressure. The need for simple answers instead of allowing for complexity. The focus on egos and individual researchers, first authors, and grants to individuals versus groups or universities.

What it's like to become an outcast in the Ivory Tower

Being ostracized for everything. I’ve contacted people I’ve worked with, and some of them talk to me. Being excluded — and not only from the university, but not being able to be part of society anymore. It’s difficult not to have a job. Being an outcast is surrealistic.

How to prevent future science fraud

I think focusing less on ego and individual scientists and focusing more on groups. Less focus on research output in the sense of numbers of publications and more on grants or interesting books. And also on other dimensions like education and team building. It’s an argument against perverse incentives. If you make incentives more complete and more complex, there’s less of a sense that you need to do this one thing to be successful.

You can read Bartlett's full interview with Stapel here.

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