How Diederik Stapel Became A Science Fraud

By Neuroskeptic | January 20, 2015 5:58 pm

Two years ago, Dutch science fraudster Diederik Stapel published a book, Ontsporing (“Derailment”), describing how he became one of the world’s leading social psychologists, before falling from grace when it emerged that he’d fabricated the data in dozens of papers.

Stapel

Stapel wrote Ontsporing in Dutch, but now his story has been translated into English, under the title of Faking Science – thanks to the efforts of Nick Brown. Neuroskeptic readers may remember Brown for his critical analyses of work in the field of positive psychology. I was one of the proofreaders for the translation. (Edit: the translation is free to download – so you won’t be supporting Stapel financially by reading the book.)

I’m currently working on a review of Faking Science but in this post, by way of setting the scene for my review, I’ll quote two passages from Stapel’s account, representing the two major crises of his career.

First off, here’s how Stapel describes the very first time he faked some data.

After years of balancing on the outer limits [of scientific integrity], the grey became darker and darker until it was black, and I fell off the edge into the abyss. I’d been having trouble with my experiments for some time. Even with my various “grey” methods for “improving” the data [i.e. ‘QRPs‘], I wasn’t able to get the results the way I wanted them. I couldn’t resist the temptation to go a step further. I wanted it so badly. I wanted to belong, to be part of the action, to score.

I really, really wanted to be really, really good. I wanted to be published in the best journals and speak in the largest room at conferences. I wanted people to hang on my every word as I headed for coffee or lunch after delivering a lecture.

I felt very alone. I was alone in my tastefully furnished office at the University of Groningen. I’d taken extra care when closing the door, and made my desk extra tidy. Everything had to be neat and orderly. No mess.

I opened the file with the data that I had entered and changed an unexpected 2 into a 4; then, a little further along, I changed a 3 into a 5. It didn’t feel right. I looked around me nervously. The data danced in front of my eyes.

When the results are just not quite what you’d so badly hoped for; when you know that that hope is based on a thorough analysis of the literature; when this is your third experiment on this subject and the first two worked great; when you know that there are other people doing similar research elsewhere who are getting good results; then, surely, you’re entitled to adjust the results just a little?

No. I clicked on “Undo Typing.” And again. I felt very alone. I didn’t want this. I’d worked so hard. I’d done everything I could and it just hadn’t quite worked out the way I’d expected. It just wasn’t quite how everyone could see that it logically had to be. I looked at the door of my office. It was still closed. I looked out the window. It was dark outside. “Redo Typing.”

And again. For a moment I had the feeling that someone was standing behind me. I turned round slowly, fearfully. There was nobody there. I looked at the array of data and made a few mouse clicks to tell the computer to run the statistical analyses. When I saw the results, the world had become logical again. I saw what I’d imagined. I felt relieved, but my heart was heavy. This was great, but at the same time it was very wrong.

[…] I was fed up with my own inability to produce anything interesting from my research. I was going round in circles, each study much like the previous one. They were just variations on a theme. Complex mediocrity. A small effect here, another one there. I’d had enough of the grind.

Secondly, here’s Stapel’s account of the moment when he was first confronted with the accusation that he was a fraud –

Maarten, who chairs the social psychology department [at the University of Tilburg], had confronted me with the question I had been dreading for years. “Diederik, I have to ask you: have you been faking your data?”

Of course, I denied it flat-out. It was a Friday evening, and we were sitting in Maarten’s bright, modern living room. I went round to his house after an evening out with friends, watching the local pro soccer team play yet another mediocre game. Maarten’s house and mine are a stone’s throw from each other. We’ve become good friends, and we
like to meet up and talk. Our kids go to the same school […]

Maarten had sent me a text message earlier that evening to ask if I would come over: “It’s important.” While watching the soccer match I hadn’t thought any more about it, but as we left the stadium I checked my phone and saw that he had tried to contact me again: “Are you coming?”, followed by “???” It sounded like something urgent.

What could be the problem? Maarten had been divorced for a few years and his girlfriend had recently moved in with him. Maybe there was a problem between them, or it had upset his children. Maybe he wanted to talk about it and get some friendly advice? I’m always happy to lend an ear. But I was way off base.

As soon as I entered his house, he came straight to the point. “How are you?” I asked, as he stood in the kitchen, making a cup of tea. “This is not good, Diederik. Not good at all.” He had just returned from a conference in London where a group of young researchers from Tilburg had taken him to one side one evening after dinner, and told him about their strong suspicions that I’d been playing fast and loose with my research for some time. Nobody knew where I was getting my data from. Had I been making it all up?

I tried to act tough and pretended to be shocked at these terrible accusations. I was nonchalant and dismissive. After all, if nobody’s gossiping about your research, it’s probably not very good. I asked him for whatever specific details he had and tried to counter them; after all, what evidence did they have? But inside my head it was as if the flimsy structure of my secret world, the walls and floors that I had casually erected over the previous ten years, was slowly starting to collapse. […]

The researchers who had blown the whistle on me had clearly convinced Maarten that they were on to something, with a great deal of detailed evidence and not-so-wild accusations. He didn’t want to believe it, but he didn’t have much of a choice.

He’d spoken to a young PhD student with whom I had coauthored an article that we’d managed to get accepted by one of the top international journals. It had taken two years of intensive research, and lots of writing and rewriting. But now she had lost all sense of pride in her achievement because she didn’t believe in the data that I’d given her.

Maarten told me that the gossip about me was spreading in academic circles across the country; from now on, whenever I gave a presentation of my research, there were going to be a lot of raised eyebrows. […] Maarten carried on talking about the conference, but I’d stopped listening.

What could they have found out? Everything? Surely not. Nobody would believe everything, surely? Nobody believes everything. Maybe I still had a chance? This was too big, too terrible, too weird; too big to fail, as they used to say about the banks. I’ll come up with something. I’m a lucky guy. It’ll all turn out OK. I can talk my way out of this situation. But it turned out that couldn’t.

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  • Minisculeminx

    Hello Neuroskeptic, just wanted to vent out on scientific integrity here. I am a grad student from India. Unlike many other countries, the academia in my country has extreme and unbreakable hierarchy built in. Students here are more like slaves to their advisors. We barely get to express our opinion on even what goes into our papers. Needless to say it has been a constant struggle to keep up integrity and to fight all the bullying from above to “play” with data. I enjoyed this post very much, i think this will give me more strength to stand up the bullying next time!

    • http://www.facebook.com/felonious.grammar Felonious Grammar

      The U.S. has the same structure, it’s just not so evident. Graduate students are “faculty slaves” and many have had the same experience that you describe.

      • Sys Best

        I don’t believe in the US it’s anything like in India, though maybe happening more frequently to foreign students that have to take it or leave it, but it sounds like over there it’s the norm, their whole society is built on classes. I expect similar situation exists in other countries, like China. However, I have to say that I’ve been disappointed by the incompetence, and immorality that comes with it, of part of the academia in the US, at many institutions, public universities, research centers, even NIH. There is a lot of gift authorship going on, for example. The part that accepts it is guilty of course but as much quilt carries the one that offers it for favors or under pressure.

  • https://plus.google.com/u/0/101046916407340625977/posts Rolf Degen

    If Stapel is telling the truth this time, questionable research practices could be a lot more common in social psychology than we thought. But of course, he has lost his credibility and this could all be a big act of self-justification. I would like to know if his “Grand Fellowship of Secret Procedures” does exist and how big it is.

    https://plus.google.com/101046916407340625977/posts/AsE9etSgBQj

  • Maarten Derksen

    It’s great that Nick Brown has translated Ontsporing, I think it should be required reading for researchers and everyone interested in science. Not that you should take it all at face value, and accept all his explanations and interpretations. It’s the book of a fraudster trying to make sense of what he did and why; it’s his interpretation, coloured by his interests. There are few excuses in the book, however.

    There is an error in the translated passage above: “the gossip about me was spreading in academic circles across the country; from now on, whenever I gave a presentation of my research, there were going to be a lot of raised eyebrows.” In the Dutch text it says “Er zou in heel Nederland over mij geroddeld worden en als ik een onderzoekspresentatie gaf, gingen in het publiek de wenkbrauwen omhoog.” According to the Dutch text, the gossip had already spread and there were already raised eyebrows whenever he gave a presentation. In other words, in this conversation ‘Maarten’ (not me, btw) is saying that Stapel’s colleagues were already (not “from now on”) sceptical about his amazing results. What Stapel is implying here is that his colleagues knew very well there was something odd about his results, but that they didn’t do anything with their scepticism beyond gossiping and raising eyebrows.

    • Nick Brown

      Good point. When I translated “als” I took it as “als [in de toekomst]” and not “wanneer”. There is a revised version coming up with a lot of typos and other fixes, so I will incorporate this. Thanks!

      • Roj

        Nick:

        Any chance on getting the book in eReader format (ePub), or some format more malleable than pdf? Even a Microsoft Word document can more easily be converted and formatted for reading on an eReader. Pdfs are messy on an ereader.

        • Nick Brown

          Rolf Degen turned the original PDF into an epub/mobi file (GIYF). I hope he will do the same for the revised version with fewer typos, which I hope to bring out in a couple of weeks!

    • Nick Brown

      In the new version, this will read as follows:

      “Maarten told me
      that the gossip about me had been spreading for some time in academic
      circles across the country; whenever I gave a presentation of my
      research, there were a lot of raised eyebrows.”

      • Maarten Derksen

        That looks perfect.

  • D Samuel Schwarzkopf

    I read this a while ago. It’s a fascinating read and I find it makes you empathise with him a fair bit. Perhaps that’s part of his intention but then again he clearly acknowledges that his actions were wrong and that he got what he deserved – but it resonates with me that he is pleading for his wife and children not to have to bear the burden of his wrongdoing.

    Anyways, while the story about his faking data is fascinating from a morbid psychological point of view, what I found much more interesting about this is is that his whole research was driven by seeking to confirm theories rather than the pursuit of knowledge. As I’ve said many times before, I think this is the real problem with science. I don’t think this can in any way excuse what he did (some claim that this is what he’s arguing), but I think this it is behind questionable research practices and if we want to change things, above all else this is what we must change.

    • Nick Brown

      >his whole research was driven by seeking to confirm theories
      >rather than the pursuit of knowledge
      Yes, this seems to be a huge problem with science as it is currently structured (i.e., as an economically-based undertaking within our societies). As Edison implied when he made his famous comment about not having failed but rather having found a thousand ways that didn’t work, the accumulation of knowledge requires the failure to confirm a lot of hypotheses, and yet, via the publication and reward/incentive systems, we’re almost officially not interested in those.

      Psychology seems to be particularly affected because on the one hand the true effects are so hard to show, while on the other eager consumers are thirsting for knowledge about themselves rather more than they are about problems in biochemistry. In the book, Stapel talks about the travelling superstars of psychology who take subject areas X and Y on tour, like an itinerant opera company performing La Traviata in Berlin and Amsterdam and Madrid. When an adoring audience is prepared to collectively pay a five-figure fee for you to talk about your theory of how they can improve their lives, how keenly are you looking to falsify your hypotheses in your lab?

      • D Samuel Schwarzkopf

        That’s actually another thing I found notable about this book. I’ve frequently read about the various cases of data fraud (Schoen, Stapel, Smeesters) that they were all “wunderkinder” and that they eventually fell from up high.

        Stapel very clearly dismisses this. He suggests that his drive to fake his data was because he felt a pressure to succeed and that he hadn’t succeeded enough and that he was mostly a nobody who only filled the small lecture rooms at conferences, never the keynote address. I find this is interesting because to be perfectly honest I had never heard of the guy before his fraud was revealed. I am not a social psychologist though so I don’t know how famous he actually was before that.

        • Nick Brown

          It’s not clear to me either how famous Stapel was prior to his downfall. A couple of Dutch people have told me that he was “always on TV”, “the go-to guy when the news media wanted a comment on a psychology story”, etc. Stapel himself has told me that he was only on TV on two or three occasions. Is he downplaying his fame, or is there some “anti-halo” effect going on with the people who claim he was ubiquitous? (I left the Netherlands while Stapel was an undergraduate, so I have no first-hand knowledge.)

          I believe that Stapel obtained his PhD in 1997, and by 2010/2011 he was Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at Tilburg, which I believe means he was the boss of the head of the Psychology department. That seems to me like a fairly rapid rise, but again, we don’t know to what extent such promotions depend on outstanding research results versus, say, being a good manager.

          • http://www.facebook.com/felonious.grammar Felonious Grammar

            … and he had tasteful furniture.

      • Chris Watson

        Unfortunately, until the big name researchers start accepting papers with “negative” results, there won’t be a change. Grad students, post-docs, and young PI’s can’t afford to push for it while they are forced to aim for Nature/Cell/Science/whatever.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      I disagree with your first point – to some extent. I empathize with his wife and children and students who became victims. But after reading the book, I’m not sure that Stapel understands that their suffering (not just his own suffering) is ultimately his fault.

      On your second point, I completely agree. It’s interesting that Stapel (at least in Nick’s translation) hardly ever uses the word “unknown”. He went into social psychology not because he was interested in the unknown aspects of that topic, but because he liked the sound of what was already known. He is passionate about the answers, but he never seems to have been interested in the questions.

      I’ll expand on both of these points in my review!

      • D Samuel Schwarzkopf

        Not sure about this. Hard to judge this, especially not from the translation as some nuances may be lost. I got the impression that he was fully aware that he couldn’t really blame anyone but himself for what his family is going through. I suppose he is also blaming whoever is pestering his family though which I find understandable. There can be multiple parties acting badly even if he is ultimately responsible for his own actions.

        • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

          Oh sure, I’m not saying the media etc. are perfect. My point is, though, that in places Stapel’s tone is one of “I’m sorry, but…” rather than just “I’m sorry.” Whatever comes after that “but…” might be perfectly reasonable but it still detracts from the force of the apology.

          • http://www.facebook.com/felonious.grammar Felonious Grammar

            He was riding a wave of popularity with the Dutch public— he was a star. I have no doubt that he’s sorry. I also have no doubt that he’s just an extreme example of a common problem.

    • Joanne Williams

      I was going to make a very similar comment. Reading the passage just seems completely alien to me. I can’t get my head round faking data – why fool yourself that you know what’s going on?

      I have to say this seems more endemic in Psychology. Coming from neuroscience, people seem more comfortable with the fact that they have no idea what’s going on. But I suspect that “We Don’t Know How the Brain Works” would sell fewer books at the airport.

      • reasonsformoving

        “I have to say this seems more endemic in Psychology. Coming from
        neuroscience, people seem more comfortable with the fact that they have
        no idea what’s going on.”

        This maybe true, but it’s a supposition. After all, how many readers really understand the methods sections in neuroscience articles?

        • D Samuel Schwarzkopf

          I agree. I think the view that psychology is somehow more susceptible to these issues is based on an illusion. If you take Schoen or that Korean fraudster whose name I forgot you have physics and microbiology in the same trouble. The only thing that “harder” natural sciences have over psychology is that some of the protocols may be more established.

        • Sys Best

          Or how many reviewers understand it, that’s how it gets out there in the first place.

  • PsyoSkeptic

    Thanks, but the little lecture on the train revealing no personal insight into the criminal nature of his behaviour was enough for me. I’ll not be contributing to this guy profiting from his fraud.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      You met Stapel on the train?

      As for profiting from his fraud, I think if you bought the Dutch version of the book then you’d be contributing to Stapel’s profits, but the English version is a free download.

      • https://plus.google.com/u/0/101046916407340625977/posts Rolf Degen

        I think PsyoSkeptic alludes to Stapel’s appearance on the “BrainTrain TEDx”:

        http://goo.gl/PqcTZ9

        This is supposed to be a series of “inspiring talks by interesting speakers”.

        • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

          Ahhh right, that explains it!

        • Mohammed Al-Rawi

          So, he has become more famous, mission accomplished :)

      • D Samuel Schwarzkopf

        Yes, I wouldn’t have bought this either. Although maybe we should have donations for Nick Brown for his translation work though…

  • zwg

    This tweet shows some evidence contradicting the claims in the first passage

    https://twitter.com/uri_sohn/status/328126913367404544

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Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.

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