Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Accounting professor notches 30 (!) retractions after misconduct finding

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James Hunton, via Bentley University

James Hunton, via Bentley University

It began with a retraction due to a “misstatement” in November 2012, which led to an investigation that found the first author, James E. Hunton, guilty of misconduct.  Now, the floodgates have opened, and Hunton has 31 retractions under his belt, making him the newest addition to the Retraction Watch leaderboard.

A month after the first retraction in 2012, Hunton resigned from his accounting professorship at Bentley University, citing family and health concerns.

Then, in 2014, a university investigation concluded that Hunton fabricated data in two papers and may have destroyed evidence. The first paper was the one retracted from Accounting Review for a misstatement; the second was retracted from Contemporary Accounting Research in December 2014. Even though the investigation centered around two publications, the university suggested more may be affected:

Bentley cannot determine with confidence which other papers may be based on fabricated data. We will identify all of the co-authors on papers Dr. Hunton published while he was at Bentley that involve research data. We will inform them that, unless they have independent evidence of the validity of the data, we plan to ask the journals in which the papers they co-authored with Dr. Hunton were published to determine, with the assistance of the co-authors, whether the data analyzed in the papers were valid. The various journals will then have the discretion to decide whether any further action is warranted, including retracting or qualifying, with regard to any of Dr. Hunton’s papers that they published.

This month, the Journal of Accounting Research has pulled three papers co-authored by Hunton and published an expression of concern about a fourth that included some of his data. We also found another paper in Contemporary Accounting Research that was retracted in January.

Last week, the American Accounting Association released a list of 25 additional papers (and a section of one article) it’s retracting from its journals, following the 2014 investigation. The reason for the retractions, according to the AAA, is:

…the pattern of misconduct identified in the investigation summary, “Report of Judith A. Malone, Bentley University Ethics Officer, Concerning Dr. James E. Hunton (2014)” the October 2014 supplement to that report; and the coauthors’ inability to provide data or other information supporting the existence of primary data, or to confirm that their studies were conducted as described in the published articles. Consistent with the findings in the Bentley University investigation summary, the Association review team found no evidence that Dr. Hunton’s coauthors were aware of or complicit in Dr. Hunton’s actions.

By our count, that’s 31 retractions for Hunton. In some cases, his co-authors agreed to the retraction and Hunton objected (through a lawyer) or did not respond to comment.

The three retracted papers from JAR are:

  • “Analysts’ reactions to earnings preannouncement strategies,” H-T Tan, J. E. Hunton, and R. Libby, Journal of Accounting Research, Vol. 40, No. 1 (March 2002): 223-246. Paper; Retraction notice. (Cited 41 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge)
  • “Recognition v. disclosure, auditor tolerance for misstatement, and the reliability of stock compensation and lease information,” R. Libby, M. W. Nelson, and J. E. Hunton, Journal of Accounting Research, Vol. 44, No. 3 (June 2006): 533-560. Paper; Retraction notice. (Cited 48 times)
  • “Relationship incentives and the optimistic/pessimistic pattern in analysts’ forecasts,” R. Libby, J. E. Hunton, H-T Tan, and N. Seybert. Journal of Accounting Research, Vol. 46, No. 1 (March 2008): 173-198. Paper; Retraction notice. (cited 25 times)

The retracted paper from CAR is:

  • “When Do Analysts Adjust for Biases in Management Guidance? Effects of Guidance Track Record and Analysts’ Incentives,” H.-T. Tan, R. Libby, and J. E. Hunton, Contemporary Accounting Research,Vol. 27, Issue 1 (March 2010), 187–208. Paper; Retraction notice.

According to the JAR notices, the journal editors read the Bentley report on Hunton’s misconduct and contacted the authors of each of Hunton’s articles to “establish the validity of data.” Because Hunton gathered the data for each study, in each case the co-authors decided the data validity “cannot be confirmed” and asked that the paper be retracted. Here’s an excerpt from the retraction note for “Relationship Incentives and the Optimistic/Pessimistic Pattern in Analysts’ Forecasts”:

After receiving notice of Bentley University’s report on Dr. James E. Hunton (available at https://www.bentley.edu/files/Hunton report July21.pdf), the Editors contacted the authors for additional information to help establish the validity of data that form the basis for this article. Additionally, the Editors and authors received additional information from Bentley University that relates specifically to this paper. The following retraction request was submitted by three of the four authors, Robert Libby, Hun-Tong Tan and Nicholas Seybert.

“Bentley University conducted an investigation finding that Dr. J.E. Hunton had, while a member of the Bentley University faculty and without the knowledge of his co-authors, engaged in scientific misconduct [in relation to two published articles]. Dr. Hunton gathered the data used in this study. Therefore, we conclude that the validity of the data underlying the experimental results cannot be confirmed, and request that this article be retracted.”

Through his counsel, Dr. Hunton contends that the data are valid and disagrees with the coauthors’ request to voluntarily retract the article. Dr. Hunton further indicates that “the data cannot be verified because the source firm no longer exists.” Dr. Hunton’s counsel also indicates that “Dr. Hunton does not recall the names of his contacts due to the passage of time, and any source documents that might have existed have long been properly disposed of in accordance with reasonable record retention expectations.”

Accordingly, three of the four authors have concluded that the validity of the data underlying the experimental results cannot be confirmed.

The Editors consider the authors’ statements, taken together, to be sufficiently clear evidence that the findings in this paper are in doubt because the validity of the underlying data cannot be confirmed. We therefore accept Dr. Libby’s, Dr. Tan’s, and Dr. Seybert’s request that this paper be retracted and acknowledge Dr. Hunton’s objection, through his counsel, to the retraction.

In addition to the retractions, JAR has published an expression of concern about a 2012 paper, “Self-serving attribution bias, overconfidence, and the issuance of management forecasts.” Hunton was not an author on the paper, but the paper included analysis of survey data that Hunton provided. Here’s the expression of concern, which is paywalled:

Section 4 of the above-referenced paper includes empirical analysis based on survey data obtained from Dr. James E. Hunton.

Because of concerns raised by the Bentley Report (available at https://www.bentley.edu/files/Hunton%20report%20July21.pdf) about the inability to independently verify data that form the basis for certain of Dr. Hunton’s published works, the editors of JAR and the authors of the above-referenced article hereby issue an Expression of Concern with respect to this article.1

Specifically, the authors have concluded that the validity of the survey data that underlie Section 4 of this article cannot be confirmed, and suggest that the inferences readers draw from the article be adjusted accordingly.2

  1. An Expression of Concern is one of three avenues available to authors and editors when concerns about a published article come to light (the most serious of which is retraction). For more detail, see guidelines of the Committee on Publication Ethics http://publicationethics.org/files/retraction%20guidelines.pdf.
  2. The authors have replicated the survey with an independent group of financial executives. Those results are available at http://ssrn.com/abstract=2569871. However, this subsequent replication should not be taken as a validation or endorsement of the veracity of the data that form the basis for certain of Dr.Hunton’s published works as the authors presently have no ability to verify the authenticity of that work. This replication has not been reviewed by the Editors of JAR.

JAR editor Douglas Skinner says that Bentley specifically investigated the papers in JAR, and explains why it took almost year from the Bentley report to retract the three papers:

Our process commenced immediately after we learned of the Bentley statement last July (http://www.bentley.edu/newsroom/latest-headlines/statement-provost-michael-j-page). Our approach was informed by COPE guidelines, which recommend the involvement of all affected parties, including each of Dr. Hunton’s co-authors, the universities (primarily Bentley and University of South Florida), our publishers, and of course Dr. Hunton himself. Bentley University also conducted additional investigative work that related specifically to the papers that Dr. Hunton published in JAR (as well as papers he published in other accounting journals).  That information was conveyed to the relevant parties and resulted in the conclusions described in the retraction notices.  As you will understand, proceeding carefully and systematically through this process inevitably takes some time.

Robert Libby at Cornell University, co-author on some of the retracted papers, says he first heard about the possible data problems from Bentley:

We became aware of potential problems with the data when we were contacted by Bentley University. We cooperated fully with Bentley’s investigation. As a result of that investigation, we lost confidence in the data gathered by Dr. Hunton and requested that our papers be retracted where he was the primary source of data.

Finally, we also heard from Merridee Bujaki, president of the Canadian Academic Accounting Association (CAAA), which publishes CAR. She confirmed that Hunton did not respond to a request for comment on the retraction, and added:

The CAAA, its journal editors and conference program chairs are committed to the highest standards of academic integrity. We are also committed to appropriate standards of due process both in the original review of material to be published in our journals or presented at our conferences, and in consideration of retraction of material in those rare circumstances where concerns about academic integrity have been raised. Our due process requires consideration of evidence of breaches of academic integrity, consultation with all authors involved, and an internal review of this evidence prior to reaching a decision.

We also heard from Tracey E. Sutherland, executive director of the AAA, who added this information to the list of articles the publisher is retracting:

You have identified one of the two sources of information about the recent retractions by the AAA — the list of papers linked from our homepage. The other source is the retractions themselves, that you will find via the “online early” link for each journal in the AAA Digital Library (aaajournals.org), where they are being made available open access. You will also see that the summary investigation report by Bentley University, with the addendum, is attached via the “supplemental material” link from each retraction.

We’ve been unable to find contact information for Hunton.

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Comments
  • tekija June 29, 2015 at 4:56 pm

    It is extremely educational to read through the entire comments thread of the first retraction.

    http://retractionwatch.com/2012/11/20/accounting-fraud-paper-retracted-for-misstatement/

    • Gary June 30, 2015 at 7:08 am

      Indeed it was (although the accounting part went over my head). What was interesting was that several posters popped up every now and again to defend Hunton (even distorting previous aspects of the thread to muddy the water).

      • Neuroskeptic June 30, 2015 at 7:19 am

        These kinds of posters always pop up but they never achieve anything. The truth comes out in the end.

        • Gary June 30, 2015 at 7:51 am

          Indeed it does which is a good thing (as I have never falsified data I rest easy and only have to restrain my urge to gloat).
          I think the difference in the comments then and now, 2-3 years later reflects the “sea change” in the view of post-peer review, then it was seen as “malicious” now it is seen as “par for the course” (which is also a good thing).

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