Accounting professor faked data for two studies, destroyed evidence: University report
James E. Hunton, who resigned in December 2012:
engaged in research misconduct by fabricating the data underlying Fraud Brainstorming and Tone at the Top…
according to a statement from Bentley ethics officer Judith A. Malone that was first reported by The Boston Globe.
“Fraud Brainstorming” is short for “A Field Experiment Comparing the Outcomes of Three Fraud Brainstorming Procedures: Nominal Group, Round Robin, and Open Discussion,” which was retracted in 2012 from Accounting Review. “Tone at the Top” refers to “The Relationship between Perceived Tone at the Top and Earnings Quality,” a 2011 paper in Contemporary Accounting Research whose results had been questioned by the journal editor just after the Accounting Review retraction but which has not been retracted.
Hunton told Retraction Watch in 2012 that he was hampered by confidentiality agreements he was forced to sign by the firms whose data he was using in his research. The university report makes it clear he repeated this claim:
Dr. Hunton repeatedly told Bentley, his co-authors and journal editors that strict confidentiality agreements prevented him from sharing with them the original data or the identities of the CPA firm (the supposed source of the data reported in Fraud Brainstorming) and the consulting/training firm (the supposed source of the data reported in Tone at the Top). He claimed that disclosure of either the data or the identities of the firms would result in him being subject to lawsuits, to the loss of his CPA license, and to a loss of confidence in the field and thus access to further research opportunities.
But after investigators contacted “any major accounting firm that might reasonably have supplied the data reported in Fraud Brainstorming, and any training or consulting firm that might reasonably have supplied the data reported in Tone at the Top,”
None was able to find any evidence that it had a research relationship with Dr. Hunton or any evidence that it had been the source of the data. No training or consulting firms (the supposed sources of the data in the Tone at the Top paper) were contacted because none could be identified in Dr. Hunton’s files.
The existence of confidentiality agreements seems highly unlikely. As the report notes:
The investigation recovered from Dr. Hunton’s computer copies of multiple versions of confidentiality agreements purportedly governing these two articles. These agreements – none of which indicated that they had been executed – all revealed unusual redactions, contradictory dates, and – most damaging of all – evidence that the documents had been revised after allegations were raised to make the documents’ prohibitions of disclosure more stringent.1 One of the firms, whose name appeared in one version of a confidentiality agreement, reviewed the document at Bentley’s request and reported that it bore no resemblance to any document that it ever used with research partners.
Hunton also seems to have destroyed evidence, which the university report said “supports the conclusion that he engaged in research misconduct:”
Despite having been cautioned on numerous occasions to retain all relevant documents concerning these papers, Bentley discovered after Dr. Hunton resigned that his office had been completely cleaned out of all physical files, and that his laptop had been wiped clean of all of his electronic files. Statements by Dr. Hunton found among his emails stored on Bentley’s servers strongly suggest that he had begun the process of removing or destroying files sometime in the fall of 2012 – prior to the time that Bentley had been informed of any allegations but after The Accounting Review had approached Dr. Hunton directly about the validity of the data in Fraud Brainstorming.
The investigation required, therefore, that Bentley engage a forensic consulting firm and a research assistant to analyze the hard drive of his laptop computer, to undertake recovery efforts, and to analyze and review the results of those recovery efforts. The consultant’s forensic analysis and recovery efforts revealed that Dr. Hunton’s laptop once housed a great deal of electronic data, and revealed no evidence to suggest that the data had been inadvertently lost. To the contrary, the forensic analysis discovered that an “eraser” utility had been loaded onto the laptop during the fall of 2012. This analysis also revealed that a second utility, which permits users to manipulate the creation dates in certain metadata fields in certain kinds of files, had also been loaded onto the laptop during the fall of 2012. Further analysis determined that the eraser utility had been run multiple times during that fall in an attempt (only partially successful) to delete all of the files on the laptop – including the metadata manipulation utility.
There is no evidence that Hunton’s co-authors — one of whose names was signed, probably by Hunton, to a comment on our original post explaining the retraction — knew anything about the fabrication, let alone took part in it, according to the report. The university will now ask Contemporary Accounting Research to retract “The Relationship between Perceived Tone at the Top and Earnings Quality.”
The report concludes that “The whole body of Dr. Hunton’s extensive research while a faculty member at Bentley University must now be considered suspect:”
He published approximately 50 papers while at Bentley, and there is reason to believe that many of those papers involved data that were provided by Dr. Hunton alone, as in the case of the Fraud Brainstorming and Tone at the Top research. Bentley University wrote to all of the authors of the additional papers identified by the confidential reporter to ask if they could personally verify the source of the data. Of the authors who responded, some said they were confident the data were valid, but none was able to produce original data or to identify with certainty the source of the data. Instead, and like in the case of Fraud Brainstorming and Tone at the Top, Dr. Hunton appears to have supplied the data allegedly obtained through his contacts within the accounting field, and provided the co-authors only summary spreadsheets of the data.
Ten of Hunton’s papers have been cited more than 20 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge.
Update, 12:30 p.m. Eastern, 7/22/14: We asked Dan Stone, an accounting professor at the University of Kentucky who has co-authored work with Hunton and who left a comment about the case on Retraction Watch, for his thoughts on the findings. He responded:
The Bentley investigation of Jim Hunton is a model of professionalism and competence. That it reveals that I was wrong about Jim; that, in fact, he did fabricate data is surely less important than is the clarity that this investigation provides. Although I have never been contacted in relation to this investigation, I commit to fully cooperating with it. Our community of scholars must now begin the important work of recovering from, and assessing the further damage caused by, Jim’s actions. One small benefit that has accrued from Jim’s misconduct is that our community is better prepared to prevent and catch future cases of scholarly misconduct.