Beware: This Blog Apparently Causes Academic Fraud

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Way to scapegoat, Chronicle of Higher Education!

An article about a Dutch psychologist accused of faking his research data wonders if academic fraudsters are responding to the wrong incentives:

Is a desire to get picked up by the Freakonomics blog, or the dozens of similar outlets for funky findings, really driving work in psychology labs? Alternatively—though not really mutually exclusively—are there broader statistical problems with the field that let snazzy but questionable findings slip through?

All I can say is that if you’re an academic who’s willing to fake your findings just to get on this blog (!!!), then you have a dangerously distorted sense of reward versus risk. Yes, a blog mention may indeed result in heightened exposure — but to risk your academic integrity for that? Anyone that desperate for attention might be best served pursuing good p.r. the old-fashioned way: cash bribes!

That said, it is worth noting that a piece of eye-grabbing research often does get massively exposed and then, if corrected, the correction tends to gather dust. Consider David Freedman‘s excellent Atlantic piece about this problem in medical research.

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  1. Nanno says:

    “the reforms they advocated for in their paper—namely, fuller descriptions of research protocols, and more tolerance of imperfections in initial papers. When the data are supposed to support a thesis perfectly, the incentives to cut corners increase.”

    Says it all.

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  2. Joshua Northey says:

    Some of this could be solved with a less “star” based academic culture. People who “discover” things that would have been “discovered” in the next year by someone else are often heralded as singular geniuses unique in their time, rather than someone straightforwardly building upon a lot of per-existing work.

    If the rewards for being a year faster were lower the incentive to fudge would be reduced. Granted you don’t want to make it easier on nonperforming academics , but right now getting some flashy article picked up and then sorting out the finer points of everything later (or not even) can be a huge personal windfall.

    I would love to see more restraint (or even explicit protocols) in science journalism/journals surrounding how sensationalized results can be, and how much unwarranted speculation based on the results is permissible.

    So much research these days is presented as “OMG huge fact about the world X!”. When if you pick at it a bit you find the truth is “We found small data point A. Assuming we didn’t make an error this allows us to assume B. If you take B and combine it with a bunch of random assumptions I made you get sensationalist fact X.”

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    • robin marlowe says:

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  3. Rex McClure says:

    Saying the “fraud” problem is driven by a desire for self-promotion is a bit of an oversimplification. Models are becoming more obtuse, as are the statisical methods to validate (or reject) them. Even for an expert reviewer, or the self-promoting researcher, difficulties abound in deciding if the data fit model which fits the theory, or if the theory fits the model which fits the data.

    Academics, ask yourself this: Does your research follow these steps? 1) idea/research question, 2) preliminary/informal data collection, 3) confirmation of idea leads to formal lit review and hypotheses, 4) formal data collection and analysis, 5) publication, and 6) hopes that Dubner or Hammermesh reads your work.

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  4. Sam_L says:

    Stephen,

    Perhaps you have rewarded the the Chronicle of Higher Education – maybe they referenced your blog in an attempt to get exposure for their article (and better search engine placement) – for suggesting implausible motivation.

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  5. clayton says:

    Judging by your headline, I guess there is something to the criticism that you Freakonomics guys are too quick to infer causality!

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  6. Andreas Moser says:

    Did I already point out my theory that not reading my blog causes death: http://andreasmoser.wordpress.com/2011/04/05/if-you-dont-read-my-blog-you-will-die/ ?

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  7. Dwight says:

    Someone on another blog shared this corollary to Ockam’s Razor with me: no one is sufficiently honest to be trusted with more than five independent variables.’

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  8. Owen says:

    By the way, your blog does indeed have a bias for sensationalized stories and often has, at best, questionable facts.

    http://voices.washingtonpost.com/ezra-klein/2009/10/the_shoddy_statistics_of_super.html

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