Psychological Science retracts a Sanna paper, citing lawyers, COPE…and Retraction Watch

In April 2011, we praised Psychological Science for its handling of a retraction. At the time, we went as far as to call the retraction notice a “model” of transparency for other journals to follow.

Well, they evidently took that compliment seriously, according to a new retraction notice for a paper by Lawrence Sanna. Sanna left Michigan under a cloud a few months ago after another scientist found his data statistically implausible, as Ed Yong reported in Nature.

The newly retracted paper, “Construing collective concerns: Increasing cooperation by broadening construals in social dilemmas,” was published in 2009 while Sanna was still at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Here’s a sample from the abstract:

First, in social dilemmas, self-interests are fundamentally contingent on collective interests (Kerr & Tindale, 2004), which makes collectives logically superordinate. Because high-level construals weight superordinate concerns prominently, they may promote collective interests (cooperation). Second, moral principles are more abstract than specific behaviors (Eyal, Liberman, & Trope, 2008), and thus cooperating may be construed more highly (e.g.,‘‘conserving the environment’’) than competing (e.g., ‘‘taking from the pool’’). Third, high-level construals are seen in terms of desirability, and low-level construals in terms of feasibility (Liberman et al., 2002); thus, cooperation (desirable in social dilemmas) may be greater with higher-level construals. Finally, social dilemmas involve self-control; short-term gains are supplanted by long-term goals. People have greater self-control when high-level construals are activated (Fujita, 2008).

Evidently, the desirability of high-level construal of not cheating one’s colleagues wasn’t able to overcome the feasibility of the low-level construal of promoting one’s career by publishing. As the notice states:

The following article has been retracted by the Editor and publishers of Psychological Science at the request of the lead author, Lawrence J. Sanna:

Sanna, L. J., Chang, E. C., Parks, C. D., & Kennedy, L. A. (2009). Construing collective concerns: Increasing cooperation by broadening construals in social dilemmas. Psychological Science, 20, 1319–1321. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02458.x

In a letter to the Editor (Eric Eich), Dr. Sanna wrote: The data reported in this article are invalid and should not be considered part of the scientific literature. The responsibility for this problem rests solely with the first author, Lawrence J. Sanna. Coauthors Edward C. Chang, Craig D. Parks, and Lindsay A. Kennedy are in no way responsible for this problem.

In response, the Editor noted that Psychological Science follows the retraction guidelines developed by the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE). Dr. Sanna was urged to follow these guidelines carefully in drafting a retraction notice, particularly with respect to stating the reasons for the retraction, to distinguish misconduct from honest error.

To assist Dr. Sanna with this task, the Editor provided Dr. Sanna with a copy of the COPE guidelines ( and a link to a retraction notice that was published in Psychological Science last year. This notice was considered a “model” by Retraction Watch, and Dr. Sanna was advised that, in keeping with this notice, he “must specify clearly the reasons for the retraction in such language that all of your coauthors agree to it.”

While awaiting Dr. Sanna’s reply, the Editor sought to contact Dr. Sanna’s three coauthors. Although one coauthor was aware of Dr. Sanna’s request to retract the 2009 Psychological Science article, the other two were not. All of the coauthors have agreed to retraction of the article, and each has received a copy of this notice.

Dr. Sanna replied by noting with regret that “research errors” have made it necessary for him to request retraction. The letter concluded with the following: “At the direction of legal counsel, I am unable to say anything further than that contained in my previous letter at this time.”

Because it is unclear when, if ever, details on these research errors will be forthcoming, the Editor owes it to the journal’s readership to retract the article now, even though this notice does not reflect COPE guidelines or journal policy.                

The paper has been cited five times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge. We think this brings Sanna’s retraction total to four, joining three papers in the Journal of Experimental and Social Psychology which Sanna seems to have asked be pulled:

We again salute Psychological Science for a detailed and transparent retraction notice — again, we’d even say a model. We can’t help but note here that the notice comes on the verge of the two-year anniversary of Retraction Watch, which is Friday, August 3. We’re humbled and gratified that our work here and, more importantly, the feedback, comments and spirited debates among our readers, has made at least some contribution to the integrity of the scientific literature.

Hat tip:  Thomas Baguley

0 thoughts on “Psychological Science retracts a Sanna paper, citing lawyers, COPE…and Retraction Watch”

  1. Congratulations Ivan.

    One would almost hope more of the above appeared. When the field is psychology, the unintended irony in the titles of retracted studies is truly unbound.

  2. There is MUCH more of this in Psychological Science. Many people in the field consider this journal iffy, with cute stories but data that nobody can replicate.

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