A new scandal hit the world of psychology last week when it emerged that Robert J. Sternberg, an eminent experimental psychologist and former President of the American Psychological Association (APA), has been engaging in text recycling aka self-plagiarism.
It has emerged that Sternberg re-used large chunks of previously published text in several publications without any acknowledgement that this done. This discovery came after Sternberg was already under scrutiny for a very high rate of self-citation.
In my view, this is a sad case. Sad because I can see no logical reason for Sternberg to do these things. It is not like he was a young researcher desperate to build a career – on the contrary, he was already very succesful.
Sternberg’s early research focussed on intelligence, IQ and rational thought. As early as 1988 – thirty years ago – he had published major, highly cited research on these topics. In the 1990s, his interests branched out into love, creativity, wisdom, education, and his work in these fields was also very succesful. He was named APA President in 2003 – marking the point at which he could truly be said to have risen to the top of his profession.
And yet the earliest example of Sternberg’s self-plagiarism (so far) is from 2002, if I’ve understood this post correctly. The self-citation also seems to be a recent phenomenon. It doesn’t make sense. Sternberg is like a millionaire who steals milk from the grocery.
I’ve pointed out before that self-plagiarism and excessive self-citation are not victimless crimes. They devalue the scientific efforts of other researchers by artificially inflating the metrics of the offenders. Yet in this case, I don’t think there were too many victims. By 2002 Sternberg had few peers, and at the lofty heights he occupied, publishing a few extra papers would have hardly mattered.
Still, it does matter to psychology as a whole. Eminent people are supposed to set an example for the rest of us, and Sternberg’s practices, in recent years, have not set a good one. If I had to diagnose what happened, I’d say he just stopped caring and started ‘phoning it in’. Like a once-pioneering band, I like his early work, but Sternberg sold out, man.