Northwestern psychology researcher out following retraction

Ping Dong

A psychology researcher at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management has left a tenure-track position there less than a year after she and a co-author retracted a paper whose methods had been questioned online, Retraction Watch has learned.

Ping Dong and Chen-bo Zhong, a professor at the University of Toronto, where Dong received her PhD, retracted a paper from Psychological Science in November 2018, six months after publishing it. As we reported at the time, the paper

found people were less fearful of catching a contagious illness if they were in a dark room or were wearing sunglasses.

A Kellogg spokesperson confirmed that Dong no longer works at Northwestern, but did not respond to questions about the circumstances of her departure, nor about whether there was an investigation into her work.

Kellogg welcomed Dong as one of seven new tenure-track faculty in 2017. 

‘A tough lesson for us’

The paper was the subject of criticism on Twitter and elsewhere within months of being published. Dong, whom we could not reach for comment this week, told us at the time:

In this project we adhered to open science practices and posted our data and materials online after the publication of the article. Analyzing the openly shared data a reader alerted the editor of Psychological Science of an error in Studies 1 and 3 that we overlooked. The error is due to the first author [Dong] mistakenly blocking participants by condition (instead of random assignment), creating a confound between condition and date. After reviewing the evidence, the authors and the editor came to the consensus that the confound undermined interpretation of the results and the paper should be retracted. This is a tough lesson for us. Open science does not mean people don’t make mistakes; it simply means mistakes are more easily caught. We are very grateful for the reader who caught the mistake and the editor who coached us through how to handle a situation like this. We vow to be more thorough and careful in our future research. At the same time, this experience strengthens our commitment to open science as it shows that open science is working as intended.

We take research practice and full disclosure seriously and we are still confident about the robustness of the phenomenon even though the confound has compromised our ability to draw inferences from Studies 1 and 3. Because of this we plan to conduct another pre-registered, well-powered study that is free of the confound to replicate our previous Studies 1 and 3. We will make the findings available through [the Open Science Framework] OSF regardless of whether our hypotheses are supported or not. 

Zhong told Retraction Watch that Dong stopped responding to his emails and calls in December 2018. 

I am not aware of any formal investigations going on nor impending retractions. Although her departure and nonresponse have created problems for her coauthors to verify their other papers with her.

Zhong said he plans to re-examine the papers he wrote with Dong, of which there are at least two.

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13 thoughts on “Northwestern psychology researcher out following retraction”

  1. Reviewing rcts for inclusion in systematic reviews, I find many poorly reported/ performed randomizations. If they are firing for poor methodology, academe will empty out.

      1. Then there should be no one left. It would be better for the world to have no output from incompetent and dishonest “sciences” than to have a steady drip of false claims.

    1. Exactly this. I did my Master Thesis on ” The Effects of Eumenorrheic Menstrual Cycle Phases on Balance Performance in Healthy Individuals – A Systematic Literature Review”. Extracted 9 studies out of more than 200 papers. Among 9 studies, 4 were fair quality and 3 were poor quality. Both categories contained enough reason to fire people. One study even deserved a jail.

    2. Do you prefer spending time reading bad/poor research? I don’t think so.
      If she cannot even understand the importance of good methodology, she is not suitable for science. Leave the place for other good and true researchers.

      1. What do you mean and why do you think this comment is relevant to this article. I’m sorry if this doesn’t seem appropriate.

  2. In other words she did the dark room condition at a warmer, less coughs and colds time of year? If so then it should have been avoided, I guess, unless they were deliberately trying to dupe or, more likely, were doing that other lesser crime (that people I know may committed) of hypothesizing after the results (what is the acronym?), which they would have been surprised by. If they been looking for this result they would have controlled for the weather.

    1. HARKing is just a poor strategy that is aimed at padding artificially thin CVs. However, that can’t fool anyone. In the present case, it seems that nobody knows exactly what happened, except perhaps Prof. Dong.

  3. It is unknown if the mistake was premeditated but the punishment seems to imply so else the punishment is too harsh. Outsider observations will not be conclusive.

  4. This is a consequence of incompetence. If you do not know the difference between your factors, hire a statistician. I know the stats faculty at Northwestern, who are first-rate. Having to explain the project to a statistician would have prevented this problem. This problem is very common in psychology, and is completely out of control in basic biology.

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