Journal says it will correct three papers by prominent psychologist for duplication

Some heavy criticism of a high-profile scientist has prompted one journal to announce it plans to correct the record.

Following a series of allegations about the work of psychologist Robert Sternberg at Cornell, a journal has declared it plans to correct three of his papers. Last month, Inside Higher Ed reported that critics have raised concerns about Sternberg’s practice of citing his own work, prompting him to resign from his position as editor of Perspectives on Psychological Science. On the heels of that, graduate student Brendan O’Connor took to Twitter to accuse Sternberg of recycling his own text in his papers — and last Friday, the Journal of Creative Behavior told O’Connor it was correcting three of Sternberg’s papers.

In an email to O’Connor — who we interviewed this month about his concerns regarding Sternberg’s work — the journal says it will publish three “Text Recycling Corrections & Notifications” to three articles O’Connor flagged, which will:

…notify readers that the articles in question include identical or near-identical text previously published by the author…

According to O’Connor, the recycled text comes from a mixture of journal articles and books. The three papers are:

O’Connor told Retraction Watch he thought one paper deserved to be retracted, given how much text recycling was present, but he understood why the journal chose to correct the other two:

…overall, I’m fairly satisfied with how issues were dealt with – JCB took the concerns very seriously, they referenced established text recycling guidelines in their investigations, and the scientific record will be updated to notify readers of the issues…I can’t have too many complaints.

The editor of the Journal of Creative Behavior, Ronald Beghetto at the University of Connecticut, told us:

We considered various options in determining what actions to take, including retraction.  Working from the Committee on Publication Ethics’ Text Recycling Guidelines…we determined that publishing a Text Recycling Correction and Notification for each article was warranted given that sections of the text are identical or near identical to previous publications by the same author and there is still sufficiently new material in the articles to justify publication.

We contacted Sternberg to ask if he agrees with the journal’s decision, but haven’t heard back. O’Connor said he’s seen a response (of sorts) to the allegations from Sternberg — specifically, a letter that appears to be from Sternberg’s lawyer (which was posted on Twitter).

Beghetto noted that O’Connor’s queries have prompted the journal to alter the way it addresses text recycling:

We reviewed our author guidelines…and determined that adding specific expectations about text recycling would help clarify our guidelines and expectations surrounding text recycling for authors.  We are in the process of updating our author guidelines and adding a text recycling attestation to our author submission form to proactively address this issue moving forward.

O’Connor said he was surprised by the journal’s quick response, “especially because text recycling seems to be more accepted in the scientific community than other questionable research practices.”

He added:

In total, I’ve probably spent 3-4 days’ worth of time investigating Sternberg’s work and communicating this to others. I think it has been worth it for a number of reasons, but mostly because several other students and researchers have approached me via Twitter and in person to share their own stories of discovering questionable research practices. A few have told me that the Sternberg issues have motivated them to pursue things further in those cases, which I think is a very positive thing.

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3 thoughts on “Journal says it will correct three papers by prominent psychologist for duplication”

  1. The notion of recycling one’s own work—not only the ideas, but (apparently) much of the same text—devoted to investigating creativity seems … creative. In a way.

  2. Especially given the titles of the papers:
    – “What’s Wrong with Creativity Testing?” seems like a line of defense he could use.
    – “Whence Creativity?” might be a more personal reflection.

  3. I’m always impressed when grad students make the effort to do something like this. It obviously could hurt their career. However, it takes courage and effort to bring forward this kind of information and I would hope that prospective employers view this aspect of O’Connor’s character favorably.

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