At the beginning of November, Science issued an “editorial expression of concern” over a 2011 paper by the disgraced Dutch social psychologist Diederik Stapel, in the wake of an announcement by his former employer Tilburg University, that it had found evidence of fraud in Stapel’s body of work.
A month later, Science has gone the extra step, publishing a retraction notice by Stapel and his co-author, Siegwart Lindenberg. The notice, dated Dec. 1, 2011, makes it clear that Stapel acted alone in the matter:
Our Report “Coping with chaos: How disordered contexts promote stereotyping and discrimination” (1) reported the effects of the physical environment on human stereotyping and discriminatory behavior. On 31 October 2011, the University of Tilburg held a press conference to announce findings of their investigation into possible data fraud on the part of author Stapel. These findings of the university’s interim report (2) included fabrication of data in this Science paper. Therefore, we are retracting the paper, with apologies from author Stapel. Coauthor Lindenberg was in no way involved in the generation of the data, and agrees to the retraction of the paper.
The nut of the now-retracted article?
Being the victim of discrimination can have serious negative health- and quality-of-life-related consequences. Yet, could being discriminated against depend on such seemingly trivial matters as garbage on the streets? In this study, we show, in two field experiments, that disordered contexts (such as litter or a broken-up sidewalk and an abandoned bicycle) indeed promote stereotyping and discrimination in real-world situations and, in three lab experiments, that it is a heightened need for structure that mediates these effects (number of subjects: between 40 and 70 per experiment). These findings considerably advance our knowledge of the impact of the physical environment on stereotyping and discrimination and have clear policy implications: Diagnose environmental disorder early and intervene immediately.
We’re struck by a couple of things. The first is that the paper purported to have data on no fewer than 150 subjects (40 + 40 + 70), which seems like a lot for such a study. The second is that its conclusion — pay attention to physical environment and correct problems before they can fester — seems intuitive, unobjectionable and, in a sense, progressive. In other words, lots of data (well, what seemed like lots of data) plus a socially conscious message. Just saying.
In an editorial published alongside the retraction notice, two social psychologists, Jennifer Crocker and M. Lynne Cooper, state that since 2003, Stapel had submitted 40 manuscripts to journals under the umbrella of the American Psychological Association. Of those, 16, or 40% were rejected. In other words, 24, or 60%, made it into the publications — an impressive batting average. As Crocker and Cooper write:
This creates a sufficient body of work that one might expect irregularities to be detected. However, the 40 initially submitted manuscripts were handled and processed through the peer-review system by 25 different editors. Under such circumstances, it would be almost impossible to detect a pattern of data fabrication.
Crocker and Cooper point out that Stapel was unmasked by “people close to the perpetrator.” That’s fair enough. But they go on to say that “other researchers” had been raising questions about Stapel’s work. Which prompts us to pose some possibilities: If other researchers were concerned about his results, and peer reviewers are “other researchers,” then either the peer reviewers for the APA journals weren’t doing a good job, or they weren’t the right reviewers.
Expect many more retractions of Stapel’s papers in the coming weeks and months.