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Dutch University Sacks Social Psychologist Over Faked Data

7 September 2011 5:50 pm
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Tilburg University

Diederik Stapel

AMSTERDAM—A Dutch social psychologist whose eye-catching studies about human behavior were fodder for columnists and policy makers has lost his job after his university concluded that some of the data in those studies were fabricated.

Tilburg University today officially suspended Diederik Stapel, who heads the Tilburg Institute for Behavioral Economics Research. But in a TV interview today, university Rector Philip Eijlander said that Stapel had admitted to using faked data and said that he would not be allowed to return.

Stapel has worked at the university, located in southern Netherlands, since 2006. He is known as a prolific researcher and a successful fundraiser. His studies appeared to offer new insights into the workings of the human mind; for instance, a Science paper published in April showed that people are more likely to stereotype or discriminate in messy environments.

In the TV interview, Eijlander says he was first contacted on 27 August by "junior researchers" in Stapel's lab who alleged that his conduct was fraudulent. Stapel immediately admitted that there was "something strange" in his papers, Eijlander says, and "yesterday, he told me that there are faked data." The university has asked Willem Levelt, a psycholinguist and former president of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, to lead a panel investigating the extent of the alleged fraud. Eijlander says that all "tainted papers" will be retracted.

As to the whistleblowers, Eijlander told the television interviewer that "I have a lot of respect for them, because they found it very difficult."

Just last week, Stapel made headlines with a press release claiming that thinking of eating meat makes people "more boorish" and less social. The announcement, which said that "meat brings out the worst in people," raised eyebrows because the study hadn't yet been written up, let alone published.

Roos Vonk, a psychologist at Radboud University Nijmegen and a collaborator on the study, wrote on her blog today that she believes the latest study is likely among those based on fabricated data. She writes that her conclusion is based on the fact that, although the results had been collected by Stapel's group, "when we discussed [them], I thought it was odd that Diederik didn't mention the name of his assistant." But at the time, she writes, the possibility of fraud didn't occur to her.

In her blog, Vonk calls Stapel "one of Europe's best social psychologists. ... He had a spotless reputation, he was an excellent teacher, and he appeared to be a paragon of integrity." The affair "shows how even us psychologists can completely misjudge people."

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