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Luc Soete

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Director's column
Archived columns by former UNU-MERIT director Luc Soete.

The Social Psychology of Scientific Fraud

I must admit this publicly: my monthly ‘elucubrations’ as the one you are reading here are based not on any scientific research but purely on my rather fastidious imagination. Sometimes in a desperate attempt to come up with something original, I even ‘elaborate’ a little, if only to keep my readers awake. Fortunately I have enough alert readers to keep me on my toes.

But Diederik Stapel [1], the social psychologist from Tilburg who faked his data, clearly had too few. Of course the outcomes of his many studies seemed so reasonable: even my wife believed it when she read that women who keep their maiden name stay more independent and intelligent compared to those who take their husband’s name. 

Stapel’s case of faking research data is not unique, but it is surprising. Scientists with an impressive career and high reputation as good as Stapel have much to lose if they are found out. One could assume that scientists have rational incentives to pursue scientific accuracy. It reminds me of the incident of Hans Gottinger [2] here in Maastricht (see, a case which became famous not for the faking of data but for the extent of plagiarism.

Around five years ago I got an email from Ben Martin, the editor of Research Policy, who asked if I knew a certain Hans Gottinger. He had been accused of plagiarism in one of his older articles, which stated an affiliation with the University of Maastricht (UM). I had never heard of Gottinger: neither of his publications, nor of his presence here in Maastricht. After a little googling, I found that Gottinger claimed to have worked for Maastricht University since 1985, i.e. before the University had actually changed its name to UM and when it was still called the State University of Limburg (RL).

Gottinger had published on an amazing array of subjects, once even with an economics Nobel laureate. I could hardly believe it. This man was supposed to have worked in Maastricht for all that time, focusing on similar research subjects as myself and my colleagues at MERIT, yet no-one had ever heard of him. Unlike Stapel, Gottinger seemed to display some creativity in faking his affiliations.

The fact that Gottinger had got away with it for almost 30 years was incredible, so was the fact that he had faked his affiliation with Maastricht as a precursor to a still fictitious Maastricht University in the 1980’s. The climax for him was in the early 1990’s, after he apparently became aware that the name Maastricht University did not exist, and started to affiliate himself with the University of Limburg just at the time our university was changing its name into Maastricht University. After all perhaps, the University Board of the State University of Limburg (the RL) plagiarized Gottinger!

The question remains though, why then as now, nobody in the scientific community noticed the fraud of Stapel or the plagiarism of Gottinger. The case of Gottinger was quite simple: in the social sciences an enormous amount of articles are published but never read. In that sense, Gottinger´s fictional presence (or absence, depending on your point of view), flew under the radar because no-one had ever noticed any of his research output. It was the lack of reputation which allowed someone to pretend for years to be associated with places where he had no real affiliation.

The Stapel case seems in many ways exactly of an opposite nature. His increasing scientific recognition became associated with increasing pressures on reputation. His regular appearances in the media and academic fora required him to come up with new results, preferably striking results, in new publications.

At the same time Stapel felt increasingly to have become more or less immune to the discovery of his fraud. (Funnily enough, Retraction Watch reported about this under the title: ‘Do fraudsters, like bad pitchers or poker players, have ‘tells’?’) [3] Also Stapel wrote a paper in 1999 in the European Journal of Social Psychology with the rather ironic title: ‘Framed and misfortuned: identity salience and the whiff of scandal’ [4], in which he and two colleagues reported the results of a survey of Dutch psychologists in the wake of a major plagiarism scandal; and I quote from Retraction Watch: “involving an unidentified Dutch clinical psychologist (“we decided to use neither the name of the person who was accused of plagiarism nor the university to which he was affiliated” they wrote)… the researchers claimed to have found (rather unsurprisingly) that how psychologists identified themselves professionally dictated how strongly they were affected personally by the scandal. Whether social psychologists view an article about a plagiarist clinical psychologist as relevant or irrelevant to the self may thus be determined by whether their social identity is narrowly defined (‘social psychologists’), so as to exclude the plagiarist, or broadly define (‘psychologists’) to include the plagiarist. Stapel’s group also showed that psychologists from the accused’s own university felt the shame of his alleged misdeeds more than those from other institutions.”

Well, whether Stapel’s data were invented or not, at least I now understand why at the time of the Gottinger story I felt somewhat taken by the affiliation with Maastricht and I do indeed have some sympathy with my Tilburg colleagues. In short, scientific fraud remains a perfect topic for social psychologists.

Luc Soete
September 10, 2011

[1]  “A Dutch social psychologist whose eye-catching studies about human behavior were fodder for columnists and policy makers has lost his job after his university concluded that some of the data in those studies were fabricated. Tilburg University today officially suspended Diederik Stapel, who heads the Tilburg Institute for Behavioral Economics Research… Stapel is known as a prolific researcher and a successful fundraiser. His studies appeared to offer new insights into the workings of the human mind; for instance, a Science paper published in April (Coping with Chaos: How Disordered Contexts Promote Stereotyping and Discrimination by Diederik A. Stapel and Siegwart Lindenberg, Science 8 April 2011: Vol. 332 no. 6026 pp. 251-253 DOI: 10.1126/science.1201068 ) showed that people are more likely to stereotype or discriminate in messy environments.”


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