Psychologist under fire leaves university to start private practice

Jens Förster

Jens Förster, a prominent social psychologist whose work has been subject to much scrutiny, recently left his position at Ruhr-Universität Bochum in Germany to start a private psychology practice.

We’ve verified with the university that Förster no longer works there, but the circumstances of his exit are not entirely clear. 

Förster’s research has faced considerable scrutiny in the past few years. A 2015 report describing an investigation into Förster’s work concluded that several of his papers likely contained unreliable data. Three of those papers have been retracted and four others have received expressions of concern. Förster, however, has denied allegations that he manipulated his data. In 2015, he turned down a prestigious professorship, citing the personal toll the investigation had taken.

We’ve contacted Förster to ask about the decision to leave his post at Ruhr-Universität Bochum and open his own practice in Cologne, Germany. Although we have not heard back yet, the website for his new practice states that Förster left Ruhr-Universität Bochum in September 2017 and opened the “Foundation of Nussbaum and Förster: Systemic Institute for Positive Psychology” in October with Manfred Nussbaum. (Nussbaum’s bio says he is a trained therapist.)

In Förster’s bio (which we translated from German to English with Google translate), he writes he is “extremely happy” to be in his new practice:

I have mastered some crises myself and now understand them as an opportunity to initiate important change processes. However, you often need an outside person to look at the situation. This person could be me for you.

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24 thoughts on “Psychologist under fire leaves university to start private practice”

  1. With stories like this, as interesting as they are from a voyeuristic perspective, aren’t they somewhat off-topic from the original intent of this blog? I thought this site, at least from the title of the blog-site was concerned with retracted articles or problem manuscripts. Why is there increasing attention given to “snooping” and what might have the impression of being very much off topic. I don’t particularly care what he does or where he works – I just needed to be informed of the problematic articles he has published.

    1. Thanks for the comment and feedback. While you may not care what someone who has had several papers retracted does, or where he works, we remain of the firm belief that it is important to understand the consequences of retractions, and of potential misconduct. Such stories are very much in keeping with being concerned with retracted articles — and calling ourselves Retraction Watch.

      1. It seems more like a case of name and shame. The work was retracted and reported on this site, which seems appropriate. Cannot trust the data, right? Tracking Förster seems beyond interest in the data or the papers. If that’s the MO, consider changing the name of the site or embrace this interest and report on ALL the authors.

      2. I also have mixed feelings about this tracking down policy you seem to be following here. There’s something adamant and, frankly, pedantic about this that makes me feel uncomfortable, and I agree that it might ultimately work against the whole open science movement which I fully support. You act like conventional (bad) journalists here, the type that Kierkegaard despised so much. And for good reasons. This guy has left academia, with a severe (and probably deserved) damage to his reputation, and is trying to start a new life. I think this is none of our business anymore.

      3. I agree with Neuroskeptic, Emily, and rfg that this is an informative and useful post, appropriate for RetractionWatch. I learned about consequences of official inquiries into questionable research practices.

        Note that this post did not refer to misconduct, and that the focus on sensationalizing misconduct by some of the comments here is therefore not justified.

        I strongly disagree with Jack and Biesheuvel that this post is “pedantic”. I learned something useful about consequences of questionable research practices.

        1. I meant to say that I completely agree with the position of Ivan Oransky (thus your position); that is the comment I replied to. I agree that reporting on these issues is within the scope of, showing the dire consequences that scientific misconduct can have on one’s and other’s lives.

      1. It is exactly this type of comment that harms the replication movement in science.

        As far as I understand the current case, there is no proof of “misconduct”; the veractiy of data patterns has been challengend, papers have been retracted (clearly stating that this is no proof of misconduct).

        Neuroskeptic, why do you go beyond the available evidence (“misconduct”)?

        1. You are right that there has been no proof that Förster committed misconduct, but in my view (and that of many others), it is very hard to conceive of a benign explanation for much of the data in his papers. In other words, someone committed misconduct.

          1. I really think that this is harmful to science: “many others” [who are the many?], “very hard to conceive a benign explanation” [just hard? shouldn’t it be close to impossible], “someone committed misconduct” [now it is someone, not Förster`]. These are assumptions/hypotheses, which can hardly be falsified/”proven”.

            Let’s focus on the hard facts: reliability of data patterns, replicability, and of course (!) clear (!!!!!) misconduct, which has to be named (e.g. Stapel, Hauser etc.).

            However, valid criticism combined with unproven allegations will of course create resistance, resistance to acknowledge mistakes, resistance to acknowledge unreliable data patterns, resistance to share data etc.

            I do not think that causing this resistance is wise, because it hinders the further development of an open science. Open science needs to be free of fear.*

            Therefore, Neurosceptic, I regard your comments here as harmful to science.

            *There are more and more scienctists who acknowledge that they are afraid because of these patterns (personal allegations without sufficient proof).

        2. And what would proof of scientific misconduct look like: Fingerprints on an SPSS file? A note in Google calendar for a rainy Sunday night that says “11-midnight: Fabricating priming data”?

          You realize that we also don’t have proof that Stapel committed misconduct, right? The reason why so many of his papers have been retracted is that he admitted to fabrication.

          1. Well a confession is of course suffiecient (I would not call it a proof). We do not have to assume a false confession in the Stapel case, right?
            It is interesting that the perspective is so narrow focussing only on the Foerster case. You can get clear proof for plagiarism, double publication of images or changing images etc.
            In the Foerster case, there is imho no clear proof. Just because we cannot get one, it does not mean we should lower (or change) the criteria.
            This, btw, would be – in a legal sense, and you argue in a legal way – be illegal.

      2. I agree with the Skeptical brain.

        This blog frequently posts not only retraction notices, but the stories surrounding each retraction. Why would this not extend to what happens after the retraction? For this particular article, no personal judgments are made and there is no “snooping” as this information is drawn from a public website anyone can access. This post has merely informed readers of an outcome, or professional “consequences.” Whether the evidence supports misconduct or not is irrelevant as this specific outcome happened regardless, and now we know about it. Also, any person considering speaking with him in a professional capacity should be enabled to search for his professional record in order to make an informed decision if this psychologist can relate to or help them with their concerns.

        TL;DR This is reporting on his publicly available professional profile/ website, not his puppy.

    2. I second this comment. There is absolutely no reason to report on the private life of a researcher whose work was under scrutiny for scientific misconduct. It smacks too much of a sensationalist journalism that goes off-topic for a few more clicks. I was a (financial) supporter of this website because I believed in the mission of retractionwatch. If this mission is covertly changed to a public shame platform for “bad scientists” then I am done with it.

  2. Thanks for putting all the details of the inquiry in one place!

    I saved this from the referenced materials:

    …”The question is if the veracity of the data on which a given publication is based can be trusted. If the data patterns are, ii from a statistical standpoint, extremely unlikely, the veracity of the reported data is in doubt. Whether such data patterns are due to witting or unwitting practices then, is of secondary importance: Of main import is that the data are to be met with distrust, calling into question the scientific value of the publication.”

  3. What kind of “private practice” does a social psychologist in Germany go into – something to do with marketing or advertising? Here in the U.S., it would be normal to hear about a clinical psychologist going into private practice – or maybe an Industrial/Organizational psychologist – but not a social psychologist.

    1. German psychotherapy law is different from U.S. law. At least 7-8 years of schooling/training, first BA/MA in psychology (also very different from a BA/MA here!) about 4-5 years (used to be Diplom-Psych.), and then about 3 years of applied training and practice, and many hours of supervision, are required to get a license and to be allowed to use the title and to bill insurance.
      Foerster holds a Dipl.-Psych. degree, and now he got the extra training during the time he was at Bochum.

  4. A social psychologist who could not sale through in his research endeavors because of certain bureaucratic measures existing as the institution’s guidelines may decide to save himself from further embarrassments by opting out to establish a private professional practice without being penalized for taking such a decision.

  5. I also do not see why this news should feature here. But I have read it here and, while I consider the retractions justified, I wish JF all the best with his new job.

  6. i’m of the opposite view of some posters.

    I don’t think there are enough exposition of the consequences of having papers retracted or being given an EoC. Young scientists in particular need to have reinforced that the range of behaviors from sloppiness to p-hacking or more serious forms of cherry-picking to downright fraud can have real-world consequences.

    Unfortunately, the overwhelming optic is that with few exceptions the worst that can happen [if you get caught] even on the extreme end of the range {like a with a fabricated gel, cherry-picked patients or other such misconduct} is you get to publish a no-big-deal correction.

    Many journal editors and institution don’t want to taint their brands so will go to great lengths to minimize all but the most blatant misconduct, especially of researchers too-big-to-fail. ORI can only investigate a fraction of cases and currently finds itself an agency in turmoil. Often the punishments ORI hands out are inconsequential.

    This facts-only article that is free of ad hominems serves a very useful purpose.

  7. Personally, I believe it is valuable to report on consequences of retractions and misconduct. In this particular case, I believe that anyone with 3 or 4 retractions has serious problems regarding credibility and integrity of their research. The decisions of the journals that pulled this work are sufficient evidence that something was really wrong here. How many papers have you all had to retract in your careers? Likely none, right? Multiple retractions constitute a lot of smoke. A lot. To say there is fire there is not a large leap of logic.

  8. Henk Koost says:

    “As far as I understand the current case, there is no proof of “misconduct”

    Neuroskeptic reports that the likelihood of obtaining Forster’s results by chance is:

    “astronomically unlikely to occur, given the methods described in the papers, even under the most favorable assumptions. The odds would be 1 in 508,000,000,000,000,000,000.”

    I am not a statistician. But if the odds of obtaining the results by chance is 1 in 508,000,000,000,000,000,000, what rational explanation do you suggest for your agnosticism.

    I am not sure what “proof” needs to encompass if that fraction is not taken as a likely index of impossibility (and it is not the unlikelihood of a SINGLE study!).

    By your criteria, we have proof of virtually nothing (and so it may be. In fact, the word proof is about as meaningful as “truth” in an epistemological sense.)

    Tough audience.

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