NETHERLANDS: Dean may face data fraud charges

A Tilburg University inquiry has recommended that details of forgery of documents and fraud committed by Diederik Stapel, a leading social psychologist, should be passed to the Dutch public prosecution service.

The inquiry found that Stapel, former professor of cognitive social psychology and dean of Tilburg's school of social and behavioural sciences, fabricated data published in at least 30 scientific publications, inflicting "serious harm" on the reputation and career opportunities of young scientists entrusted to him.

Some 35 co-authors are implicated in the publications, dating from 2000 to 2006 when he worked at the University of Groningen. In 14 out of 21 PhD theses where Stapel was a supervisor, the theses were written using data that was allegedly fabricated by him.

Stapel was suspended from his professorship at Tilburg on 7 September 2011 and Rector Magnificus Professor Philip Eijlander appointed a committee chaired by WJM Levelt, former president of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, to examine Stapel's scientific publications.

The interim report, delivered on 31 October, said that at least 30 of the 150 papers Stapel had published were based on fictitious data.

The interim report concludes that the extent of Stapel's fraud is "very substantial". It says: "The committee has already encountered several dozen publications in which use was made of fictitious data. The full list of these fraudulent publications will be presented jointly with the other committees in the final report, or before its release.

"It has been established that the fabrication of data started even before the Tilburg period. The committee has concluded that publications from the Groningen period are also affected. The fraud has persisted for some considerable time: at any rate since 2004."

The Levelt committee - having interviewed more than 30 former colleagues, supervised students and co-authors, present and former members of the faculty board, department heads and research directors - found that Stapel alone had fabricated the data used and that no-one else had deliberately participated in the fraud.

Stapel is well known in the Dutch media as a commentator on social issues, having published extensively on people's values and attitudes, often presenting controversial research results that prompted public debate.

In April 2011, Stapel published an article with Siegwart Lindenberg of the University of Groningen in the prestigious journal Science with the title: "Coping with Chaos: How disordered contexts promote stereotyping and discrimination". It claimed that field experiments at Utrecht railway station during a strike found that disordered environmental contexts such as littering on the street, a broken sidewalk or an abandoned wrecked bicycle were factors that led to stereotyping and discriminatory attitudes.

"Such environmental disorders should be diagnosed early and immediately intervened upon," the authors concluded.

Another alleged research result, not yet published in a scientific article but as a press release announcing ongoing co-authored research, has gained much publicity in the Netherlands, for the claim that "meat eaters are more selfish than vegetarians". In the words of Stapel in the press release: "It seems likely that vegetarians and flexitarians are happier and feel better, and they are also more sociable and less lonely."

The Levelt report describes how Stapel worked when collaborating with other researchers, stating that the "trust in the scientific integrity of Stapel was absolute. The last thing that colleagues, staff and students would suspect is that, of all people, the department's scientific star, a faculty dean, would systematically betray that trust."

A number of PhD students were denied involvement in the collection and processing of data, a situation which might have been averted if there had been a general rule to have two supervisors for each PhD student, the report says.

In relation to collaboration with senior researchers, the report says that Stapel took personal charge of the data collection and provided the outcomes, but not the raw data, a distribution of tasks, based on trust, that is not unusual in science.

It adds that Stapel demonstrated substantial knowledge of literature, and "considerable skills in designing experimental manipulations", but the experiments were seemingly executed under the complete supervision of Stapel alone.

The report concludes: "With the method outlined above, Stapel bears the full responsibility for the enormous harm inflicted upon people and their careers, and on the reputation of science and social psychology in particular."

It stressed that great harm had been done to co-authors and PhD students in particular, as a consequence of Stapel's fraud. The people affected are hampered in their careers, including their attempts to extend contracts and apply for grants, and they suffer from stigmatisation that may persist for a long time, the report says.

In addition, confidence in science, and in social psychology in particular, has been badly dented. Other victims are the universities of Tilburg, Groningen and Amsterdam, whose reputations have been damaged, academic publishers that have been obliged to withdraw published articles, providers of research funds whose grants have been used fraudulently, and fellow researchers who may have been denied the grants and direct funding that were awarded instead to Stapel, the report said.

The draft of the Levelt report was sent to Stapel for comment, and his response is printed as Appendix Three. He said he had read the report with a sense of "dismay and shame".

"Unfortunately my present state does not permit me to assess this report completely for any factual inaccuracies," he says. "I must emphasise that errors I have made were not motivated by self-interest. I do not identify with the picture that has been sketched of a man who has attempted to use young researchers for his own gain."

At the University of Amsterdam, where Stapel got his PhD in 1997, an investigation has not been able to establish any fraud with research data, partly because the data has been destroyed.

An investigating committee at Amsterdam has recommended that an inquiry should be carried out into "whether Stapel can be stripped of his doctorate on the grounds of exceptional academically unworthy conduct, in breach of the obligations attached to the doctorate".