Going Dutch: Stapel inquiry eyes credulous colleagues, institution, prompts national soul search

Dutch investigators have released their final report into the case of Diederik Stapel, the social scientist and erstwhile faculty member at Tilburg University who fabricated data in 55 articles and book chapters. So far, 31 of Stapel’s published papers have been retracted — three others have expressions of concern — although more might follow.

In addition, 10 dissertations by students Stapel supervised were found to contain fraudulent data, although those students were cleared of any wrongdoing in the inquiry.

The report — and we’re going by rough translations here — found that Stapel’s colleagues and administrators seemed to accept his results at face value. Meanwhile, his high profile at Tilburg insulated him against initial rumblings about problems with his data. As the Dutch paper NRC Handelsblad reported:

More important than the fraud of Stapel is that in the scientific world, no one has pulled the alarm about strange things in Stapel’s publications,” says Pim Levelt today in NRC Handelsblad. Levelt is chairman of the committee that the work of Stapel in Tilburg investigated, such as commissions Noort and Drenth did in Groningen and Amsterdam respectively. “The whole system, from low to high, has failed. That is our shocking conclusion.

Or, as another piece in the paper put it (sort of):

Science has failed. The exercise of criticism, something that science par excellence preaches, is totally neglected. That said the chairman of the committee-Levelt afternoon during the presentation of the final report on the investigation of fraud dismissed professor Diederik Stapel.

The Stapel report could have farther-reaching implications. NRC Handelsblad has reported that the president of the Dutch Royal Academy of Sciences has demanded an expanded investigation into the case of Don Poldermans, a prominent cardiologist who lost his position at Erasmus University in the wake of misconduct probe. Poldermans has reportedly acknowledged misconduct but not fraud.

Meanwhile, Erasmus Magazine has reported that Levelt has criticized Erasmus University’s handling of its own wayward social psychologist, Dirk Smeesters, who resigned in June amid concerns about the veracity of his data. Per Google Translate:

Emeritus Professor Pim Levelt, the Tilburg investigation into the fraud of social psychologist Diederik Stapel led to criticism voiced yesterday the EUR in an interview with the News Agency of Higher Education:

“The Erasmus University has not done what it should have done. There are two articles withdrawn, but the rest of Smeesters’ work just keeps howling. As a university scientist several years to mess around, it must take its responsibility and the entire oeuvre screening, as now at Stapel for the first time has happened. ”

Until now, the university has information about a new inquiry into the fraud kept quiet. Or that research has already begun, the chairman, and when it should be completed, it is not yet clear. Psychologist Rolf Zwaan decided not to lead further research because he now wants to focus on his own research.

For those keeping score, that marks the fall from grace of three of The Netherlands’ top scientists in barely a year. As this headline from NRC declares:

Wetenschap mag Diederik Stapel dankbaar zijn voor wake-up call

We don’t think that needs any translating.

Updated 4:00 p.m. Eastern 11/29: Turns out  Stapel will be releasing a book tomorrow. It’s called  “Ontsporing,” which means derailment, and, we suppose, is supposed to evoke the sense that this once-upstanding and legit researcher somehow jumped — or was knocked off? — the tracks of honesty and integrity into his career of deceit. We’re also told that the Stapel mess spawned a Dutch neologism: “slodderwetenschap,” which means something like “sloppy science” and refers to ineffective peer review and a culture of science that allows fraud to go undetected for so long.

Hat tip: Anne-Marie Oostveen

0 thoughts on “Going Dutch: Stapel inquiry eyes credulous colleagues, institution, prompts national soul search”

  1. My translation of the second paragraph:

    “The Erasmus University has not done what it should have done. Two articles have been withdrawn, but the rest of Smeesters’ work is free to spread. If a university has allowed a scientist to mess around for several years, it must take its responsibility and screen the entire oeuvre, as now has been done for Stapel for the first time ever.“

    (if you need more translations out of Dutch in the future, let me know – you guys do great work)

    1. idem dito – happy to translate occasional text from Dutch into English if necessary. My English is certainly not perfect, but still better that that of Google Translate…

  2. Sorry, I’ve posted the wrong link in the Smeesters topic (that one only urges for a new investigation). The correct link to the new investigation by the EUR is http://www.eur.nl/nieuws/detail/article/43343-vervolgonderzoek-wetenschappelijke-integriteit-zaak-smeesters/

    Furthermore, the final report about Stapel has also been published in English: http://www.tilburguniversity.edu/nl/nieuws-en-agenda/finalreportLevelt.pdf

    So, no need for google translate for the moment, just 100+ pages of mind-boggling reading stuff.

  3. I found chapter 5 (on the research culture of flawed science in Stapel’s area) particularly shocking. It’s like a laundry list of how to do bogus studies without being technically fraudulent.

    1. I had said the same about the book by Leonardo Gomes et al. (UNESP), also figuring in this blog because the book was retracted while by Springer and then re-edited and published in Brazil….
      Must be a funny read to some and a dangerous textbook to many.

  4. “although those students were cleared of any wrongdoing in the inquiry”

    They may have done nothing wrong simply because they did NOTHING! They did not even realize the data they analyzed and used for their thesis was too good!

    1. Indeed, but maybe this could (partly) be due to having received a very very poor education (also see Levelt report on some of the statistical analyses which are/were apparently common). If Stapel has to pay back funding, perhaps the universities should pay back students’ tuition.

  5. Maybe this is a google-translate problem, but it is definitely not correct that “Rolf Zwaan decided not to initiate further research..” This statement ought to be retracted. Here is why. First of all, it is up to the Board of Directors (well above my pay grade) to decide whether follow-up research should be initiated. Second, I have strongly recommended (which is all I could do) that follow-up research be initiated. Third, such research will start soon. It is true that I have decided to step down as chairman because I want to focus on my own research. Given how time-consuming this work is, it is not something that a mid-career scientist such as myself can afford to be involved in for a long time.

    1. Replaced “initiate” with “lead” — thanks for pointing this out, Rolf, and for the suggestion, André.

  6. I’m just waiting (with bated breath) for something like this to happen in the USA: three or four or five top researchers are found to be fraudsters, like Dipak Das, etc. It’s only a matter of time.

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