Doing the right thing: Psychology researchers retract after realizing data “were not analyzed properly”

cerebral cortexAmid an ongoing investigation, a group of psychology researchers at the University of Leuven (KU Leuven) in Belgium have taken a painful decision to retract a paper now that they’ve realized there were serious problems with one aspect of the work.

Here’s the notice for “The Emergence of Orthographic Word Representations in the Brain: Evaluating a Neural Shape-Based Framework Using fMRI and the HMAX Model,” by Wouter Braet, Jonas Kubilius, Johan Wagemans, and Hans P. Op de Beeck:

The authors retract this publication. Because of human errors by the first/corresponding author, the fMRI data reported in this retracted paper were not analyzed properly. The errors were detected when other lab members reanalyzed the data for another purpose. At that point, it turned out that the original data analyses by the first author included several operations which are hard to replicate and which do not fit fully with the methods as agreed upon with the co-authors and as described in the paper. Because of this we no longer consider these results trustworthy.

The computational work in the manuscript, which was the sole contribution of co-author, J. Kubilius, is not compromised per se, but we decided for a full retraction given the weight of the fMRI data in this publication.

The first author regrets the errors and takes responsibility for them, and he cooperated fully with the investigation once the initial doubts had surfaced. All authors of the original publication agree with this retraction.

The first author, Wouter Braet, left KU Leuven in October 2012 for the University of Kaiserslautern in Germany. He tells us he is there “on a fixed-term contract that is due to end in a few months.”

Except for the fact that the notice is behind a paywall — which is the publisher’s fault, not the authors’ — this would seem to be a model retraction. It’s specific, detailed, and is a clear attempt to correct the literature, even at a personal cost.

As the senior author, Hans Op de Beeck, tells us:

As PI I have made the decision to retract once an internal lab investigation provided me with a full understanding of what had gone wrong and why. All authors support this decision, the author who made the errors fully collaborated with the investigation, and thus there was no reason to wait for lawyers or administrative reports (which can give very long delays and related frustration, as you know very well). The decision to retract is also a conservative decision, in the sense that one could wonder whether it would have been possible to save parts of the paper through a correction, but we preferred to follow a high standard in this matter.

Op de Beeck also reported the issue to a board for scientific integrity at KU Leuven, which prompted an institutional investigation. It’s not clear when that will be completed, and Op de Beeck decided to retract in the meantime, which seems like the right thing to do. We hope the university will release the report when their investigation is complete, and clear up any remaining questions — which will also be the right thing to do.

3 thoughts on “Doing the right thing: Psychology researchers retract after realizing data “were not analyzed properly””

  1. I’m no entirely sure I understand. The computational work must have been used to model the results, but the results bogus to begin with? This seems to indicate that the model is bogus as well, in the sense that it can be used to model anything and therefore it has no explanatory power…

  2. At first I thought the blame was put on a naive PhD-student who had done an analysis wrong. But Wouter Braet seems to have at least 10 papers, mostly first authorships. So what is meant by “human error”? It obviously cannot be a trivial honest mistake that wasn’t caught on time, because that would presumably not require a report to a board for scientific integrity involving lawyers and such. So if it is deception, or at least it can be construed as such, are the other (fMRI) papers authored by Braet now under suspicion as well? If Op de Beeck has a full understanding of what had gone wrong and why, and all authors agree, then I will be curious to learn those unambiguous facts at some point.

    1. 10 papers don’t make one infallible, I think. So, it is probably a good idea to avoid dishonesty accusations at this stage.

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