Exclusive: Psychology researcher loses PhD after allegedly using husband in study and making up data

Ping Dong

A psychology researcher already under fire for several questionable studies has had her PhD revoked by a university tribunal that found it likely she fabricated data in her thesis. 

Ping Dong, who was a doctoral student at the University of Toronto from 2012 to 2017, had already earned retractions for two papers based on her thesis before the tribunal’s decision to cancel her degree and give the thesis a failing grade. A summary of the case the school has made available online reveals those retractions, which we’ve previously reported on, arose from more serious misconduct than previously publicized and were also subject to an institutional investigation. 

Dong’s research concerned how moral violations and unethical behavior, such as tax evasion or adultery, influence consumer choices.. According to the university’s report, her thesis had an “improbable level of duplication” in the answers research participants gave to open-ended questions. Dong also allegedly confessed to a former supervisor that her husband impersonated participants in her studies and that she had failed to properly randomize the results – although the supervisor contests that Dong ever admitted this to her. 

Dong’s thesis resulted in three published papers, cited 29 times in total, according to Clarivate’s Web of Science Two of the papers had already been retracted before the tribunal’s decision because of data anomalies found by readers: 

According to the tribunal documents, the problems with the thesis began to surface in May 2018 when the then-editor of Psychological Science, Steve Lindsay, contacted Dong and Chen-Bo Zhong, Dong’s coauthor and faculty advisor, after receiving reports from a reader of anomalous patterns in the data in Dong’s article on darkness and fear of infection. Lindsay at the time had asked a statistical advisor to assess the report, and the advisor confirmed that there were problems in the data, he told Retraction Watch.

Dong has another paper from 2013 also published in Psychological Science that was not investigated. Lindsay said he probably assumed Dong was an early-career researcher and failed to look for any other papers that she had published in the journal. 

When Zhong confronted Dong about the concerns in the Psychological Science paper, she blamed the issues on “improper, but innocent, randomization” in the data collection process – an explanation the tribunal concluded was “fake”. 

Then, in early 2019, Zhong received an email in which Dong admitted to falsifying data, according to his testimony for the tribunal. He said Aparna Labroo, who had supervised Dong’s first year paper before leaving the university in 2013, had forwarded an email in which Dong admitted she did not properly randomize data in the Psychological Science paper and that her husband had impersonated participants. 

Labroo disputed these claims in an email to Retraction Watch: “Ping Dong admitted no such thing to me and I never had or ever have had any such email. I had no idea she did not randomize conditions in her 2019 paper with Chenbo.” 

Asked whether Dong had admitted that her husband had impersonated participants, Labroo wrote: 

My understanding is that Ping and her husband are separate entities, and the Psych Science is different research from Pings [sic] dissertation. What Ping may or may not say about her husband also would be heresay [sic]. So I am not sure about the extent of relevance of this question to an investigation about Pings actions with respect to her dissertation.

She added:

At no stage did the University of Toronto reach out to me or ask me anything about this investigation, so any reference to me in their report is pure heresay [sic]. 

Zhong has not responded to requests for comment, instead deferring to the University’s media relations office. A spokesperson for the university confirmed the existence of such an email, though declined to release any of the documents tendered at the tribunal’s hearing.

“The Tribunal’s reasons for the decision speak for themselves. The University is not in a position to provide further information,” the spokesperson added. 

We were also unable to reach Dong, who was not present for the tribunal hearing. 

According to the report, Zhong told the tribunal that in August 2019, he noticed Dong had restricted access to the data for the Journal of Consumer Research paper after editors of the journal had requested a copy for data maintenance purposes. That same month, Zhong consulted a data scientist, Marcel van Assen, to help investigate the paper. Van Assen “concluded that the issues went beyond mere ‘questionable research practices’ and indicated possible misconduct,” the report stated. 

A month later, the editors at the Journal of Consumer Research told Zhong and the university’s research integrity office that there were “credible concerns” about the paper published in the journal. The university began investigating the paper in 2020 and found Dong had fabricated or manipulated data to support her hypothesis and had destroyed data to avoid detection. Zhong requested a retraction after the findings of the university’s investigation. Dong never responded to the concerns, according to the retraction notice. 

The tribunal’s case summary also cites a third paper connected to Dong’s thesis, published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, although it gives no indication whether the paper was ever investigated by the university. 

Christian Unkelbach, the editor of Social Psychological and Personality Science and Margo Monteith, the former editor, said they had not been contacted by the university — nor by Zhong or a concerned reader, as the other editors had — about the paper. Unkelbach said in an email to Retraction Watch that he considers this “an omission by the University of Toronto if they have reason to suspect fraudulent behavior that led to the results in Dong et al. (2015).”

He added if Zhong, or others mentioned in the tribunal’s findings, were able to provide evidence of data fabrication or manipulation in the paper, the journal would take action to protect the integrity of the scientific record. 

According to the case summary, Dong also used her “improperly” obtained degree to secure a tenure-track position at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management — a position she abruptly left less than a year after earning the retraction in Psychological Science. Apart from the two retractions related to her thesis work, Dong has an additional two retractions and a correction.

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21 thoughts on “Exclusive: Psychology researcher loses PhD after allegedly using husband in study and making up data”

    1. You may not like Peterson’s opinions, but he’s never been accused of academic dishonesty. Don’t conflate your prejudice with fact.

      1. Peterson has in fact been accused of intellectual dishonesty for his “unfakable” version of the Five-Factor school of psychology flim-flam.
        His version of the 5-Factor questionnaire allowed him to sell his services as an Expert Witness for courtroom testimony. It did not go well.
        > [19] This is perhaps the most interesting of all of the reports that counsel for the respondent wishes the court to consider. It comes as close to “junk science” as anything that I have ever been asked to consider.

        1. There are no accusations of dishonesty in any of those links. The FakeProof article is by someone studying people who lie or mislead on these assessments. The others relate to admissability in court but nothing about dishonesty. It’s tedious how often people lie about this guy. He’s not even worth the effort.

    2. Jordan Peterson is a very talented, logical, honest, and courageous person. Those who don’t appreciate him usually either lack a good sense of logic or a high enough IQ, or are simply blinded by ideologies and dogma.

      1. Peterson is so ‘talented, logical, honest, and courageous’ that he thinks that ‘[p]roof itself, of any sort, is impossible without an axiom (as Godel[sic] proved). Thus faith in God is a prerequisite for all proof.’

  1. This is happening in all scientific circles nowadays, if it says ‘scientists say’ or scientists discover’ it’s often crap..

    1. Science is far too broad to sum up that way. A biologist who studies extinct herbivores has little in common with one who studies aerodynamics. Science isn’t one single field. What you are doing is like impugning a librarian for something that an accountant did on the grounds that they might hold the same degree.
      When you read that “scientists say,” the real problem is that people are quoting an article, not a scientific study, and the article was likely written by someone who could never read through a hundred page study with advanced mathematics and understand it, but who might have read the abstract and jumped to conclusions.
      I’m not trying to impugn all journalists here but the ones who report on science without a background that allows them to understand it are the problem.

    2. At worst, this is what business school circles are up to nowadays. This is where we find Francesa Gino, this is where we find Dan Ariely. This is where we find Promothesh Chatterjee, Randall Rose and Jayati Sinha.

      Not all b-school profs are up to no good–far from it! But they’ve got an over-sized proportion. I wouldn’t say “scientific circles” unless you lack skills of discernment.

  2. “Dong’s research concerned how moral violations and unethical behavior, such as tax evasion or adultery, influence consumer choices.”

    This whole situation is _literally_ proof of concept and theory. Unethical choices being made and in this case, the influence on consumer choices are continued support of the collegiate institution for their asinine roundabout allegations and finger pointing

  3. Culturally, there are different views on ethical behavior. This should not surprise anyone. There are probably many more pieces of research that have been ‘manipulated’ to get a specific outcome. Isn’t this what education is becoming?

  4. This smacks of my own (potential) experiences in academia. I was on a paper to be published in a journal with a fellow undergrad and two of our faculty’s professors. Pretty rare opportunity to be offered as an undergrad, so I jumped at it. After one academic conference and a few meetings I quit the project because the risk of having my name on frivolous work with more holes than swiss cheese was too high. Their attitudes towards others doing similar work were also reprehensibly juvenile and petty rather than collaborative and open-spirited. It was supposed to be the foundation of continued work, too. If I’d ignored my gut and continued on, I wonder if I’d be in a similar position to Ping years down the road because I’d chosen to enter into a false status-reinforcing feedback loop of confirmation bias with my profs about flimsy subject matter. I’m not trying to absolve Ping here, but it takes two to tango in a game that’s become more about covering each other’s positions or attempts to stay in cushy jobs than producing anything helpful to understanding the world. Her supervisors are likely as selfishly motivated as she was here.

    1. Thanks for your two-cents, which are actually more valuable exposing widespread immoral conduct in higher education. As usual, money talks. And in Academia, papers equal big cash.

      1. “Culturally, there are diffrent views on moral behavior….”

        Ethics ≠ Morals: Ethics provide a universal framework, offering scientific justifications for moral behaviors, whereas morals represent sets of rules or behaviors established by society.

      2. “Papers equal big cash.”

        Please tell me where this is true, because ever-so-much I’d like some big cash for me papers, which have heretofore generated $0.

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