The Diederik Stapel affair has caused a stir in academia.
What’s it all about?
Professor of social psychology Diederik Stapel has faked the results of at least 30 research papers, and it could be many more. A special commission headed by scientist Pim Levelt is going over every paper Stapel has been involved in during his tenures at Tilburg, Amsterdam and Groningen universities. One of his better known gems is the finding that meat eaters are not very nice people.
How did he do it?
According to Levelt’s interim report, Stapel would discuss a premise with one of his PhD students and then zoom off to collate the data, alone and without allowing any interference from his collaborators. On one occasion he cited ‘good contacts’ at a secondary school where he was going to hand out questionnaires. Off he went, with a big bag of liquorish all sorts to regale the pupils with. He never went. What did he do with all that liquorish all sorts, eat it himself?, one journalist asked in bemused bewilderment.
Why did he do it?
Vanity say many, a hypothesis that seems to be supported by Stapel’s phrase ‘Do you realise I’m giving you pure gold?’, before handing over a worthless pile of poo to one of the adoring PhD students he helped acquire a title based on thin air.
‘Not so much a mental aberration as a character flaw’, surmises a more kindly forensic psychiatrist. Stapel is not a crazed psycho who has lost touch with reality, chortling behind his desk chewing liquorish all sorts while thinking up the evidence for the hypothesis that tall people like two poached eggs for breakfast. He has ‘a neurotic personality and his own cumpulsiveness is a burden to him’. He also knows how to cover his tracks by inviting co-authorship, preferably with people too lazy to do their own checking. Stapel himself blames the pressure of the academic environment with its emphasis on publishing and its relentless competition for money. He also admitted to the altruistic motive of ‘making the world look a little nicer than it was.’
How did he get away with it?
Stapel was prolific, popular and, allegedly, a bully. According to the report, a young scientist who dared question the professor’s data was accused of putting into doubt Stapels’ well established reputation as an ace investigator. He would also hint that too much criticism might put in danger the aspiring scientist’s chances of success.
He also intimidated his colleagues who would defer to Stapel’s supposedly greater investigative talents, even when they entertained ligitimate doubts about his methods.
How was he found out and what will happen now?
Three young researchers at Tilburg university finally decided that a number of stats Stapel had provided didn’t make sense. They also found he did a cut and paste job on them. They subsequently took their findings to the head of the university who confronted Stapel. He confessed and a committee was installed to follow the professor’s false data trail. Stapel will be taken to court for fraud by the universities he worked for. The PhD students whose cv will be forever blighted by their collaboration with Stapel, will keep their academic titles.
Levelt has recommended that research data should be kept on record for at least five years.
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