A study examining whether the verb tense you use to describe a positive or negative experience influences your current mood will be retracted after a university investigation found the data had been manipulated.
By whom is the question — the notice cites an unnamed graduate student as the source of the manipulation, and says the only author, William Hart, was unaware of what had occurred.
We spoke with Hart, based at the University of Alabama, who declined to identify the student, nor say whether he or she was still working at the university. He did say the experience has been trying:
You feel devastated. You feel…yeah, I don’t know. Very uncertain. Worried, embarrassed. And honestly concerned for the student. I knew this individual quite well.
Hart said he and others first learned the data were problematic after posting the student’s data from another project online. A scientist outside the lab flagged the data as being inconsistent with what was reported, which led to additional questions, he told us. Those questions
led to the individual who posted and collected the data to come forward that the data posted online were altered strategically to yield a particular conclusion…the student was forthcoming about which papers were at stake.
Hart said his lab will be issuing additional retractions as a result, but declined to specify how many, citing the university’s investigation.
Regarding the specific paper that will be retracted from Psychological Science, “Unlocking past emotion: verb use affects mood and happiness,” Hart told us:
There has been an investigation, and it is known that the data were manipulated. Exactly how, or to what extent, is not entirely clear at this point.
The 2013 paper has been cited four times, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science, formerly part of Thomson Reuters. It found that study participants who talked about a previous happy time using verbs in the imperfect tense — meaning “I was laughing” — were in a better current mood than people who used verbs in the past tense (“I laughed”). The same trend applied to negative experiences — using imperfect tenses, which imply an ongoing experience, was associated with more of a negative current mood in study subjects than using past tense. It received some press coverage at the time it appeared, such as from The Huffington Post.
Hart explained the student was not listed as an author on the paper because he or she only collected the data, and didn’t participate in writing the manuscript.
He added that the experience has led him to change how data are stored in his lab. Before, lab members would save information on their computers, then download it to a common hard drive. Now, all the information is stored online, and if anyone tries to delete it, it can easily be restored.
All the data now is going to be in a place where I can check it, and it can’t go anywhere.
We want to offer kudos to the editor of the journal, Stephen Lindsay, who alerted us to this retraction before it appeared. He told us:
Psychological Science is committed to promoting openness and transparency. We are also striving to increase vigilance to methodological and statistical issues during the review process.
Lindsay also sent us the text of the upcoming notice:
The retraction follows an investigation by the University of Alabama’s Office for Research Compliance. That investigation found that a former graduate student in William Hart’s lab altered the data in strategic ways. The investigation found that William Hart was unaware when the article was published that the data had been manipulated. William Hart cooperated in the investigation and agreed to this retraction.
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