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Good practices

Manual for the identification of poor conduct

A preliminary report on the fraud perpetrated by Diederik Stapel, a professor of social psychology who was fired in September from Tilburg University in the Netherlands, works as a sort of manual to identify signs of poor scientific conduct. According to the online issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, the manipulation and fabrication of data affected at least 30 publications and Stapel went undiscovered for eight year thanks to his repertoire of dissimulation. One of his tactics was to ask colleagues what they were working on and then say that he had data that fit their article like a glove. The data was fake, but his colleagues were unaware of this. Thus, Stapel collected papers as co-author, without drawing too much attention to himself. He also took care to invent plausible reasons to provide some rationale for fictitious research. When his colleagues asked for contacts at the schools where he had allegedly conducted research studies, he would refuse to provide them, claiming that he wanted to safeguard the students from any harassment, as he depended on them for new fieldwork. When required to explicitly explain the target of the research, he would mention real schools, but even invented the names of assistants. He knew how to seduce the media and to use it as his ally – his study showing that people who enjoyed eating meat appeared to be more egotistical than vegetarians performed well in the press.

Additionally, he used his prestige to intimidate anyone who might suspect him. This was the case with researchers that had asked for access to unprocessed information from his research. Finally, to keep the manipulated data under control, he did without the help of assistants when it came to collecting information.

These frauds were unmasked thanks to the dedication of three young researchers that denounced him to the university in August. Another three young people had already sounded the alarm previously. Two professors had similar suspicions, but kept quiet. “The committee concluded that the six young accusers showed more courage, vigilance and curiosity than the professors,” said the report. Stapel declared himself guilty in writing. “I am ashamed of this and regret it greatly,” he said.