The Stapel Continuum

Diederik Stapel (Photo Credit: Jack Tummers)
Diederik Stapel (Photo Credit: Jack Tummers)

Along with many other psychologists, I’ve been closely following (and participating in) the ongoing discussion about finding ways to effectively improve the shortcomings in our field’s research methods. Given that the Stapel fraud case was an important spark to these discussions, I read Yudhijit Bhattacharjee’s article, The Mind of a Con Man, in this week’s New York Times Magazine with great interest.

Bhattacharjee paints a very humanizing portrait of Stapel and the struggles that those around him have had coming to terms with his fraud. He certainly doesn’t let Stapel off the hook, but I was disappointed that the story essentially conflates Stapel’s fraud with the sins of many other psychologists, with the difference being only a matter of degree. In doing so, it unfairly portrays many honest psychologists and presents a simplistic – and, in my opinion, deeply misguided – understanding of the real problems in psychology.

Although he calls it a “cynical point of view,” he suggests that actions like Stapel’s are on the same “continuum of dishonest behaviors that extend from the cherry-picking of data to fit a chosen hypothesis — which many researchers admit is commonplace — to outright fabrication.” I could not disagree more strongly. I will be among the first to acknowledge that current practices in psychology are in need of improvement. Some psychologists make mistakes when they should know better; others do know better but find ways to cut corners through excuse making or self-deception. But fabricating data crosses into an entirely different territory.

In Bhattacharjee’s story, Stapel explains that it is, “The extent to which I did it, the longevity of it, [that] makes it extreme. […] Because it is not one paper or 10 but many more.” Sorry, Diederik. That’s not what makes it extreme. Adding a post-hoc covariate or dropping an inconvenient outlier is a questionable research practice – one that should be eliminated – but making up fake data? That’s fraud.

Ultimately, I agree with Bhattacharjee that fraud “might represent a lesser threat to the integrity of science than the massaging of data and selective reporting of experiments.” I’m grateful that there are a growing number of scientists and scientific organizations who are making methodological reform a priority. As I’ve written previously, we need to make sure that at the very least psychologists recognize the effects that some of these practices can have. But that still doesn’t place most psychologists on the same continuum as Stapel. It’s a very big step from reporting unplanned analyses of real data to fabricating fake data from studies that were never conducted. Pretending like these are more or less the same thing is not only misleading, but it impedes efforts at reform by putting on the defensive those people whose support is critical if the reforms are to succeed.

In an article full of self-incriminating quotations, when it comes time to accuse psychologists of deliberately falsifying their data, suddenly  Bhattacharjee’s sources go silent, and no evidence of this damning indictment is presented besides what “several psychologists” told him. I find it ironic that immediately after accusing an entire field of acting in bad faith in the “pursuit of a compelling story no matter how scientifically unsupported it may be,” he is guilty of doing precisely that himself.