Columnist Kelley Williams says it seems lots of researchers lie and cheat these days. They don’t like to be exposed either.
Who you gonna call when a Harvard Business School tenured professor lies about her research? Research about why people lie and cheat. Fraud Busters, that’s who. A recent Wall Street Journal article profiled three academic fraud busters. They’re busy.
Seems lots of researchers lie and cheat these days. They don’t like to be exposed either. You won’t be surprised to learn the HBS professor has sued the fraud busters. Kind of like the original Ghost Busters getting slimed by a ghost. It can be messy for fraud busters. So why do they do it? And why do researchers lie and cheat? You probably already know the answer to that question.
First, some numbers. How big is research fraud? The WSJ fraud buster article says “at least” 5,500 academic papers were withdrawn (for fraud) in 2022 vs. 119 in 2002. So, academic fraud has increased at least 46 times in the last 20 years by this measure. The “at least” suggest there was more unexposed fraud. There are more lying researchers than there are fraud busters. Why? It’s easy to lie. It’s profitable. It’s not easy to find and prove fraud. And it’s not profitable.
If you google “academic research fraud,” you will get thousands of results. I stopped looking at 200. It seems academic fraud has contaminated most, if not all, fields of research. Why? It’s a crime. But it pays. Odds of getting caught are low. Odds of jail time are zero. Successful academic fraud leads to academic success: peer recognition, promotions, tenure, more research grants. Worst case consequences may involve retraction of fraudulent research. Occasionally, loss of job or tenure. The wheels of academic fraud justice grind exceeding slow – and not so fine.
Harvard Business School seeks to revoke tenure of its lying professor. That’s not easy. Her defense – HBS is sexist. Meantime she’s on academic leave. Stanford University’s President recently stepped down in the wake of suspect data in published studies he co-wrote. The studies were retracted. He remains on the Stanford faculty. It doesn’t take a PhD to figure the risk-reward ratio for academic research crime is favorable. It’s expected value is much greater than street crime. It’s apparently about as common.
There are no academic fraud cops or sheriffs. Or bounty hunters. Just vigilantes. No Oxbow Incident hangings to satiate frontier justice blood lust. So, what motivates the vigilantes? WSJ profiles of its three fraud busters suggests it’s respect for academic integrity, disdain for cheaters, and the thrill of the chase. “Watson, the game is afoot.”
Some research results defy common sense. These frauds are easy to spot. In 2011, the three vigilantes published a joint paper (False Positive Psychology) using accepted research methods to achieve absurd results. It included a satirical experiment showing that listening to the Beetle’s “When I’m Sixty-Four” made people grow younger. It became the most cited paper in Psychological Science. As the WSJ notes: Flawed social-science research can lead to faulty corporate decisions about consumer behavior and misguided government policies. Hello Bud Light. Hello Net Zero.
More subtle research frauds misuse statistics and use cherry picked data. They are not easy to spot. They make the chase more challenging and thrilling. The three vigilantes created Data Colada in 2013, a website to exchange ideas about data manipulation and statistics abuse. Journals that publish research results now have more staffers to screen for fraud. But much fraud still goes undetected. It takes years to resolve complaints. Meantime research frauds fester. Michael Mann’s hockey stick temperature history is still cited as evidence of global warming.
A paper by Lee Harvey – Quality in higher education describes a variety of academic frauds. Most are driven by competition for research grants. The paper compares fake research to fake news. Politicians lie. So do scientists. Here’s a list of academic frauds. Fabrication – making stuff up. Example: Piltdown Man, the evolutionary “missing link,” found in a gravel pit in Piltdown England in 1912. Exposed as fraud in 1953 that combined a human skull with an orangutan’s jaw.
More frauds. Taking grant money but not doing the study. Example: Papers on Parkinson’s disease research by Caroline Barwood were retracted when the Queensland Crime and Corruption Commission found no evidence that the study had ever been conducted. Altering data. Example: A study by physician Andrew Wakefield published in Lancet in 1998 correlating autism and measles-mumps-rubella vaccine. The study led to parents’ refusing the vaccine for their children and subsequent widespread outbreaks of measles and mumps. Investigation in 2010 revealed that Wakefield had altered facts about subjects of the study.
Plagiarism is another fraud. It involves theft of other people’s work without citation or acknowledgement of the original source. Scientists do it. So do politicians. The President has been accused of serial plagiarism beginning in law school. Other frauds include duplicate publications of research and salami slicing research to publish multiple articles based on the same research without cross referencing or acknowledgement.
Then there’s government funded research designed to further political objectives. The COVID-19 emergency and its flatten the curve, mandatory masks, vaccinations, shutdowns, quarantines, and other violations of individual freedoms required that there be no effective treatment alternatives. But there was an effective alternative: Ivermectin. This cheap widely used Nobel Prize winning anti-parasitic medicine was effective on COVID-19 when used early with proper protocols.
Results of “research” trials designed to make Ivermectin fail by delaying treatment, sabotaging protocols, and targeting vulnerable patient population were widely reported. They were cited to show Ivermectin was not effective, proscribe its off-label use, threaten and sanction non-complying doctors. Ivermectin was bootlegged here anyway. It saved lives. It was widely used in poor third world countries where it was the medicine of choice. And saved more lives.
So, the next time you see or hear: “Research shows…” or “Scientists and Experts say…” Be skeptical. Be very skeptical. Your life, health, economic well-being, and freedom may depend on it.