Fraud in scientific research: three big names under fire

Just over 10 years ago, there was a scandal about the psychologist Diederik Stapel, who had committed fraud on a large scale in his investigations. Recently, there have been some reports about scientists who probably did not act ethically. 

Francesca Gino

Francesca Gino is a leading Harvard researcher on the topic of honesty. Very briefly, the situation boils down to this: The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that her colleague, Max Bazerman, had been informed by Harvard about potentially falsified results in a 2012 study. This study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, argued that people were more honest if they signed a statement of truth at the top of a form. Bazerman received a document from Harvard with evidence of the forgery but denied involvement.

Three researchers, Uri SimonsohnJoe Simmons, and Leif Nelson, subsequently made it plausible in three blog posts (1, 2, 3) on the website DataColada that Gino cheated in four other investigations. The blog authors believe that many more of Gino's papers contain false data. Harvard had access to more information, including original survey data, that could confirm or disprove fraud. None of Gino's co-authors were involved in the data collection. Gino was immediately sent on leave by Harvard. She is now taking Harvard to court and is seeking $25 million in damages. In this video, you can see more details about the case. It seems that Gino has indeed cheated and is lying.

Dan Ariely

An author who also came forward in Francesca Gino's case is the well-known behavioral economist and psychologist Dan Ariely. He is known for his Ted Talks and popular books, such as Predictably Irrational. Here are some studies by Ariely that are now considered dubious, to say the least:

  • 2006: Ariely conducts electric shock experiments at MIT without the necessary ethical approval.
  • 2010: Ariely claims on NPR that dentists often misdiagnose cavities, based on unconfirmed data from Delta Dental.
  • 2012: An article by Ariely in PNAS is disputed; a blog post claims the dates are fabricated, leading to the retraction of the article.
  • 2022: The TV program "Hamakor" questions several Ariely studies, including the "Ten Commandments" study at UCLA.

In this video, you can learn many details about the suspicions against Ariely. A painful bit is where he has an email exchange with a UCLA professor, Aimee Drolet Rossi. He asks her if she remembers collecting data for him for the Ten Commandments study. She says she can't remember. His tone is pleading: "They're trying to make me bleed even more than I already do, so anything you can remember would help a lot." Rossi explains that according to her, the study did not take place and ends with: "Again, as I said last August, please keep me out of your mess. I will not comment further on the matter."It appears that Ariely has indeed cheated and is lying.

Marc Tessier-Lavigne

Marc Tessier-Lavigne, former president of Stanford University and acclaimed neuroscientist, came under fire in 2022 for allegations of manipulated images in his publications. Renowned scientific integrity consultant Elisabeth Bik and student researcher Theo Baker of The Stanford Daily laid the groundwork for these allegations. You can watch this interview with Theo Baker. After watching this video, are you surprised at its eloquence and journalistic tenacity? Perhaps it helps that both of his parents are very prominent journalists.

While Tessier-Lavigne vehemently denied the allegations, a 2023 investigation revealed that some of the disputed papers were indeed manipulated by others. This led to Tessier-Lavigne's resignation as president, insisting that no personal wrongdoing was shown. Throughout the investigation into his integrity, Tessier-Lavigne was not open and cooperative. He's got looks against him.

Can we still trust scientists?

Understandably, stories of scientific fraud and misconduct raise concerns and doubts about the integrity of science as a whole. If, after reading the above stories, someone were to ask, "What good is science? Can you still trust scientists?", I would answer the following:

  1. Incidents vs. the norm: Although the incidents described are serious and regrettable, they are not representative of the entire scientific community. The vast majority of scientists work with integrity and according to strict ethical standards.
  2. Self-correcting character: One of the strengths of science is its self-correcting character. When fraud or errors are discovered, they are often exposed and corrected by other scientists. This shows that the system, while not perfect, is capable of self-checking and improving.
  3. Transparency and reproduction: There is a growing movement in the scientific community towards transparency, openness, and reproduction. This makes data and methodology more accessible to other researchers, which increases the reliability of research.
  4. Strong incentives and pressure: We should also recognize that in academia, there are strong incentives to publish and perform. This pressure may tempt some to explore or cross the boundaries of ethical conduct. This is a systemic problem that must be addressed to ensure the integrity of science.
  5. Not just in science: In any industry or profession, there are always some individuals who do not behave ethically. That does not mean that the entire sector or profession is unreliable.
  6. Fundamental importance: Science has brought us so much, from medical breakthroughs to technological innovations and a deeper understanding of the world around us. These benefits should not be overlooked because of the misconduct of a few.

In short, while it is essential to be alert and remain critical of scientific research, it is also important to recognize the value and reliability of science as a whole. Every incident of fraud or misconduct is an opportunity to improve the system and strengthen the integrity and reliability of scientific research.