Embattled Psychologist Addresses New Challenge

Martin is a contributing news editor and writer based in Amsterdam

AMSTERDAM—Facing accusations of misconduct, social psychologist Jens Förster has written another long open letter to defend himself, this time against fresh questions raised last week in a story in Science. In the statement, posted on his own website today, Förster says Science has misunderstood an e-mail conversation with a research assistant and suggests some people may be trumping up accusations against him for monetary gain.

At issue are three papers published in 2009, 2011, and 2012. In a previous response to questions that an anonymous critic has raised about the studies, Förster asserted that these studies took place in Germany between 1999 and 2008, most of them at Jacobs University Bremen. But e-mails exchanged in 2009 between him and Pieter Verhoeven, a former University of Amsterdam (UvA) research assistant, cast doubt on that timeline. In the e-mails, obtained by Science, Verhoeven and Förster appear to be discussing how to set up some of the studies.

In one exchange, Förster initially proposed telling subjects that a fake poem used as a stimulus in one experiment was "Malaysian." Verhoeven responded that this would not be credible and added: "I think it'll work when we use a Eastern European language, like telling that it's a Moldovian poem." The 2011 paper, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, indeed describes the use of "an alleged Moldavian poem."

Förster, who recently resigned from UvA, did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the Science story. But in his new defense, he says that his accusers err in concluding from the e-mails that he had not previously done the experiments. He says he had already called the nonsense poem "Moldavian" when he did the work in Germany, well before the e-mail exchange. After he came to Amsterdam in 2007, he wanted to do "similar studies at UvA that included both replications and extensions." But he felt that Moldavian might be associated with negative stereotypes in the Netherlands and that Malaysian might be "both more neutral and more believable." However, "after discussions with the research assistant I decided to take again Moldavian, among others because the poem sounded also to Dutch students more East European than Malaysian, and students considered Moldavians a rather neutral group."

"I wonder why people publish doubts about my studies that are so obviously unwarranted and that do certainly harm my reputation," Förster continues. Some of the allegations may stem from a lack of expertise, he concludes, but "please also note that for some people my case could be profitable."

Based on a statistical analysis of Förster's data, the Dutch National Board for Research Integrity has concluded that the 2012 paper, which was published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, can only be the result of data manipulation and constitutes a violation of academic integrity. It has not publicly addressed the other two papers, and UvA says it doesn't intend to investigate them further. Förster was supposed to start a new professorship at Ruhr University Bochum this month with a €5 million grant from Germany’s Alexander von Humboldt Foundation; that position has been shelved while the university and the foundation look into the allegations.

Posted in People & Events Scientific Misconduct