Exposing Fraudulent Academic Research

The New York Times recently published a fascinating piece that exposed the fraudulent research of one Diederik Stapel, a professor of social psychology at Tilburg University in The Netherlands. What we learn from the piece is applicable to America, where the incentives for producing worthless research are no different.

Stapel had become an academic star for his research. The problem was that his research was bogus – he made up data to “prove” notions that he thought government officials and other academics wanted to hear. In one paper, for example, he claimed to show that “a trash-filled environment tended to bring out racist tendencies in people.” In others, he found that people became selfish and less social after eating meat, and that people consume more when they have been “primed” to think about capitalism.

Stapel managed to construct a stupendously successful academic career on his vaporous research. And he would probably still enjoy that career if he had quietly slid into administration at his university and stopped publishing. He did not, however, and in time some people began to smell a rat. His data were simply too perfect, leading other psychologists to suspect that he was simply making everything up. They were right. Stapel admitted to the author of the article that he “couldn’t resist the allure of fabricating new results.” Once his research was carefully investigated, he was found to have committed fraud in at least 55 published papers. His career was ruined.

To be sure, Stapel’s case is far from unique. The article mentions the high-profile academic frauds committed by former Harvard professor Marc Hauser and Korean scientist Hwang Woo-suk. Not mentioned, however, was the fraud perpetrated by historian Michael Bellesiles a decade ago. He too wanted to make a splash by telling people (specifically, anti-gun liberals) what they wanted to hear, and made up crucial facts for his book Arming America. (A good summary of that case is available here.)

Sometimes academic fraud is discovered and punished, but it’s easy to believe that much of it escapes detection. After all, Stapel’s “work” would still be considered valid had he not been so greedy for fame. Other academics are undoubtedly more careful about their deceptions.

Stapel’s funding came from grants from the Dutch government, which is now investigating him for “misusing” public funds. But why should public funds have been on the table in the first place? Why should governments pay academics for research into the sorts of questions Stapel said he was investigating? What good could possibly come to the citizenry from finding out whether, for example (this is another of his faked studies) children are more willing to share their candy after they had drawn a sad picture?

The root of the problem is that most academic research is sheltered from the test of the market. Indeed, the people who commission and pay for it usually have little or no actual interest in getting a good product. When government officials buy research, they don’t lose anything if the work turns out to be fraudulent, foolish, or both. Similarly, when universities give professors light teaching loads so they will have plenty of time for research, school officials have nothing to lose if the work is bogus.

As Milton Friedman observed, “No one spends other people’s money as carefully as he spends his own.” If we applied that wisdom to academic research, the amount of fraudulent and pointless work would be greatly diminished.

George Leef

George Leef is Director of Research for the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

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