Science - September 15, 2011

'It's not just Stapel who has failed'

The fraud by psychology professor Diederik Stapel continues to be the focus of much discussion. In yesterday’s Volkskrant [A Dutch daily paper, ed] emeritus professor of Contemporary History Hermann von der Dunk deplored the tough ‘publish or perish’ mentality in the sciences. Here, Wageningen scientists respond.

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According to Von der Dunk the sciences these days provide a climate in which fraud and plagiarism can flourish. He sees three reasons for this: firstly, ‘the temptations to appropriate other people’s achievements or to pluck data from the air’ have increased. This is due to ‘tremendous increase in science’s prestige and its direct impact on society.’ The second and biggest threat that Von de Dunk identifies is the ‘lure of the market, which has erased the inconvenient obstacle of scientific ethics from university strategies.’ And lastly, there is the media culture which fuels vanity among scientists. Von der Dunk: ‘An idiotic thesis such as ‘meat-eaters are louts’ would be dismissed as nonsensical table talk were it not proclaimed with much ado by psychologists (including Prof Roos Vonk, who just so happens to be a vegetarian).’
So is the Stapel affair indeed a symptom of current pressures and temptations in science? Wageningen scientists give their views:
 Cees van Woerkum, Professor of Communication Sciences:
‘It is not just Diederik Stapel who has failed, the system of checks and balances as a whole has failed. Because it is striking that Stapel has apparently only been found out after many years. I have noticed that experimental research used to be replicated far more often. I did psychology and in the nineteen seventies a great deal of attention was paid to the Yale studies on persuasive argumentation. These studies were replicated numerous times and new insights and explanations came to light.
‘Nowadays the scientific journals no longer consider it of interest to publish replication research. That makes fraud easier because no one notices it anymore.
The journals are extremely geared towards remarkable results, but they should publish replication research more often. That would stimulate scientists to do this kind of research more often. Now you will rarely or never make it into the journals with replication research. Double-checking results is crucial. Where little checking goes on, fraud can flourish.’

 Wieger Wamelink, researcher in the Ecological Models and MonitoringTeam:
‘It is still very rare for anyone to cheat. And it comes out if you cheat, even after publication. It is in the nature of science to require checks, which happens after the publication has come out as well. Although you never know of course what goes undetected, the system does appear to work. So there is no immediate reason to demand that measures are now taken which will be a burden to everyone and increase the workload even more. The occasional case like this is, sadly, unavoidable.
‘It is worrying that independence can be compromised through the increasingly diffuse way research is funded. This is certainly true of its public image, in the media for instance. But even there, most scientists work is rooted in their own integrity. What is more, the question of whether research is independent of government wishes was already an issue in the days when research was largely government-funded. That’s something that has only become more of an issue these days.’

 Jacqueline Bloemhof, professor of Sustainable Supply Chain Management:
‘The pressure to publish has certainly increased in today’s competitive science, but I question whether you can talk of an unhealthy climate. Plagiarism and fraud have always existed, and one tenure track more or less is not going to make much difference to that. Modern, global science has also increased transparency a lot, raising the chances of being caught out for fraud or plagiarism.
‘You can compare it with the self-checkout at a supermarket: most people just scan all their products, even though they could get away with taking something for nothing more easily that they can when they go to the till. Similarly, most scientists go about their work in an ethical manner, co-authors make sure they check the data, methods and results, and peer reviewers give a thorough commentary on submitted articles.’

What are your thoughts on this subject? Is the pressure in the sciences so high that it makes fraud an attractive way of bolstering careers?