Science - September 15, 2011

‘Inventing data is pointless, above all'

Tilburg professor of Psychology Diederik Stapel invented research data in order to be able to publish impressive findings. ‘An incident that is rightly drawing a lot of attention', thinks rector magnificus Martin Kropff.

‘The Tilburg fraud case is serious for the scientific community, but this is not standard practice. Quite the opposite. I have asked our confidential counsellor whether there are any known examples of Wageningen publications based on fraud. Happily, there are none.
It is unimaginable that a professor just makes up data for years on end, as appears to be the case. Because it is completely pointless. We build on each other's knowledge and all research results are subjected to careful scrutiny by other scientists. Sooner or later, fraud will come to light. The idea that the pressure to publish drives scientists to invent data strikes me as nonsense. There is no pleasure in that, surely? As a scientist you want to find out the truth about how things work, don't you? Above all, it is pointless to make up research results.
In Wageningen we have a code of conduct for scientific practice. It's on the intranet for everyone to see. It describes five aspects: scrupulousness, reliability, verifiability, impartiality and independence. Researchers must be independent, which means taking responsibility for their results. They must also formulate their research questions well, use a sound methodology and be scrupulously thorough in drawing their conclusions. This means colleagues should check the research approach, and the co-supervisor or research group leader should keep a close eye on the research.
The research schools do pay attention to this. At PhD ceremonies it is stated that Wageningen University assumes that the researcher has observed the code of conduct. Before an article is published, many different people have looked at it. Scientists are quite stringent with each other. So, do we have a good system for preventing fraud? I think we do, but a case like Stapel's makes us all more alert.
What makes science enjoyable and exciting is unexpected results. The nicest, most interesting scientific results are contra-intuitive: does this result really make sense? And perhaps you find an explanation for the result later on. Or perhaps you don't. That is why you must have checks and balances in science.'