Dutch professor weaves eight-year web of lies

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The academic world in the Netherlands is in shock following revelations of a fraud case on an unprecedented scale. It could well turn out to be the biggest case of fraud in academic history.

Diederik Stapel, now ex-professor of social psychology, has been exposed as a cheat for fabricating research data in dozens of articles that made the pages of respected scientific journals. And most alarmingly of all, everybody fell for it.

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Tilburg University suspended Stapel in early September when it emerged that he had used fictitious data in his publications. Subsequent investigations into these shady practices revealed that the academic – who also worked at the universities of Groningen and Amsterdam – had made up research data for at least 30 publications in prestigious scientific journals. The investigation into another 130 journal publications and 24 chapters in academic books is still ongoing.

The committee responsible for exposing the full extent of the wayward academic’s fraudulent practices was led by Professor Pim Levelt. He described the case as “very substantial and astonishing. It’s highly damaging to the status of science in the Netherlands. This is a case that will attract major coverage throughout the world”.

Rubbish
Diederik Stapel made his name with a series of widely reported studies. One supposedly revealed that people who eat meat are more selfish than vegetarians. Another article published in the leading journal Science claimed to show that people are more likely to discriminate against minorities in an environment strewn with rubbish. These findings can now be consigned to the litter bin of academic endeavour.

Dutch academics say they are shocked by the results of the ongoing fraud investigation. The universities of Tilburg and Groningen are joining forces to press charges. The University of Amsterdam is looking into the possibility of stripping Stapel of his doctorate.

Smooth operator
Sijbolt Noorda, President of the Association of Universities in the Netherlands, says he is taken aback by the methodical and calculated nature of the fraud that has been perpetrated.

“It’s almost beyond belief that someone could have engaged in such systematic deceit. This is not simply a case of succumbing to temptation in a moment of weakness. This is year after year of conscious effort devoted to faking experiments.”

It seems that Diederik Stapel was a very smooth operator. His modus operandi was to prepare a study meticulously with a collaborator – often a young junior researcher – and then to insist on carrying out the actual survey alone at schools where he claimed to have good contacts. A few weeks later, Stapel presented the results of the supposed study to his collaborator. If asked to provide the actual questionnaires, Stapel simply said the raw data was no longer on file. In fact, the findings were a product of his own imagination.

Abuse of power
Investigator Pim Levelt reveals that Stapel’s misconduct didn’t stop at leading colleagues up the garden path:

“It was compounded by the fact that Stapel used the power he had over young students to intimidate them. If they asked too many inconvenient questions, he simply said ‘I am entitled to your trust’. That amounts to abuse of power, and it was a card he played frequently. Even worse, he might say ‘You are causing me to doubt your suitability as a candidate for a PhD position.’”

Found wanting
According to Pim Levelt, the wrongdoing was entirely on the part of Stapel. The investigative committee found that PhD candidates and other researchers were not aware of his practices. In response to the burning question of why the fraud did not come to light sooner, the committee cites Stapel’s “cunning, manipulations and abuse of power”.

But of course the universities are painfully aware that the critical faculties of the academic world have been found seriously wanting. The debate on this issue is sure to be heated, since the fact that someone could weave such a web of lies for so long without being unmasked by his peers can only be regarded as an international disgrace.

In a statement written after he was toppled from his pedestal, Stapel adopts a contrite tone. “I realise that by conducting myself in this way I have left my direct colleagues feeling angry and confused, and that I have cast a shadow over my field, the discipline of social psychology. This is something that I am ashamed of and that I deeply regret.” He says: “I wasn’t able to deal with the pressure to score, to publish, to perform better. I wanted too much, too quickly.” Stapel is now receiving help “to figure out why all this has happened”.