Dutch university investigating psych researcher Stapel for data fraud

Tilburg University in the Netherlands has suspended the prominent social psychologist Diederik Stapel over concerns that he fabricated data in his published studies. According to a translation of a press release from the school, Stapel, professor of cognitive social psychology and dean of Tilburg’s School of Social and Behavioral Sciences, “has committed a serious breach of scientific integrity by using fictitious data in his publications.”

The release says the rector of Tilburg has set up a committee to investigate Stapel’s manuscripts and report back by October. Heading the panel is W.J.M. Levelt, former* president of the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences and professor emeritus at the Radboud University in Nijmegen.

What the release does not specify, however, is which of Stapel’s many publications — a Medline search comes up with at least 45 bearing his name — are implicated. His articles, on everything from table manners to infidelity, have been published in both the social science literature and more general titles, including an April 2011 paper in Science on discrimination, and he has collaborated with researchers in both Europe and the United States. Twenty eight of his papers have been cited at least 20 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge, and two have been cited more than 100.

A Tilburg website  promoting Stapel as an expert has  been “placed offline (temporarily or permanently) by the administrator.”

The Dutch press has picked up on the story, and we’ll be covering it more as we learn the details. We’ve tried to contact Stapel for comment.

*Correction, 10:45 p.m. Eastern, 9/10/11: Levelt is former president of the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences, not current president. Apologies for the error.

8 thoughts on “Dutch university investigating psych researcher Stapel for data fraud”

  1. Some more background info on this case is given here in an emotional response by Prof. Roos Vonk, a colleague and friend of Prof. Stapel: http://www.roosvonk.nl/fraude [link is in Dutch]

    A short summary:

    She mentions a study on the ‘psychology of eating meat’, that she recently performed with Prof. Stapel. This research had not yet been published but they already wrote a press release with the claim that ‘eating meat brings out the worst in people’: http://goo.gl/Px71g [link in Dutch].
    This study was criticized by a number of different media outlets at it seemed to be of poor quality and very biased http://goo.gl/bxxOI [link in Dutch].
    Prof Vonk has learned today of the data fraud perpetrated by Prof. Stapel. She mentions that she was surprised by the fact that when he gave the data on meat eating to her, that Prof Stapel did not name the assistant who collected the data. She now has no other option than to conclude that these data were entirely fictional. She is embarassed by this and apologizes to everybody, particularly to the journalists that questioned the impartiality of the research on eating meat.

  2. This is a story that, in its completeness, has great value for social science. It has striking similarity with “Animal Farm”, except of course that then it were animals, although we know that Orwell was talking about new humans. In his story, the characters also refused to eat meat, with similar lamentations on the sinfulness of human nature. In his story, the central character also was proven a fraud in the end. How on Earth anybody could undertake the Dutch experiments that could only end in this comical failure? Did anyone there read the Orwell story? I strongly suspect that no one did. I also would bet that the whistleblowers first sinned, ate meat, may be a steak, and that caused this outburst of vigour – they told the truth completely betraying their community. One sin led to another.

  3. It’s really not about the meat-story. For some reason that’s what the media pick up but that story wasn’t even published in the first place…

    1. Lord, what a mess. It literally makes one feel ill to read some parts (I’m about half way) even in Google translation.

    2. I was very impressed by the “interim” report, which could serve as a model for other institutions investigating fraud. The three universities that employed Stapel (Amsterdam, where he was a graduate student, Groningen and Tilburg) setup independent commissions to investigate his work, but these commissions exchanged views and materials and produced a joint report. They document in detail how the frauds were committed (enough there to write a novel). They examine the role of his students and collaborators (all are fully exonerated). They talked to various whistleblowers, the first of which were not listened to. They look at the research environment he worked in, and probe the reasons why it took so long to find him out. Finally they make clear recommendations on measures that the universities could take to reduce the likelihood of such cases. Considering how opaque most fraud investigations reported by Retraction Watch have been, this is truly a breath of fresh air.

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