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Committee: Dutch professor faked data for years

By Toby Sterling
Associated Press / November 3, 2011

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AMSTERDAM—A prominent Dutch social psychologist who once claimed to have shown that the very act of thinking about eating meat makes people behave more selfishly has been found to have faked data throughout much of his career.

In one of the worst cases of scientific fraud on record in the Netherlands, a review committee made up of some of the country's top scientists has found that University of Tilburg Prof. Diederik Stapel systematically falsified data to achieve the results he wanted.

The university has fired the 45-year-old Stapel and plans to file fraud charges against him, university spokesman Walther Verhoeven said Thursday.

Stapel acknowledged in a statement the accusations were largely true.

"I have manipulated study data and fabricated investigations," he wrote in an open letter published by De Volkskrant newspaper this week. "I realize that via this behavior I have left my direct colleagues stunned and angry and put my field, social psychology, in a poor light."

Stapel said he was ashamed and offered his apologies.

The committee set up to investigate Stapel said after its preliminary investigation it had found "several dozen publications in which use was made of fictitious data" in the period since 2004, though Stapel's career goes back to the early 1990s.

This year, Stapel co-authored a paper published in Science magazine that said white people are more prone to discriminate against black people when they encounter them in a messy environment, such as one containing litter, abandoned bicycles and broken sidewalks.

"These findings considerably advance our knowledge of the impact of the physical environment on stereotyping and discrimination and have clear policy implications," the paper's abstract says.

Science has now flagged the article with a note to readers that "serious concerns have been raised about the validity of the findings."

Although the paper that linked thoughts of eating meat eating with anti-social behavior was met with scorn and disbelief when it was publicized in August, it took several doctoral candidates Stapel was mentoring to unmask him.

Verhoeven said the three graduate students grew suspicious of the data Stapel had supplied them without allowing them to participate in the actual research. When they ran statistical tests on it themselves they found it too perfect to be true and went to the university's dean with their suspicions.

In the future, the university plans to require raw data from studies to be preserved and made available to other researchers on request -- a practice already common in most disciplines.

The commission found that co-authors of Stapel's papers seem to have been unaware of the fraud, naively trusting in Stapel's reputation and fooled by elaborate preparations for tests that were never actually carried out.

In his statement, Stapel didn't directly say what his motivations were. He said he had succumbed to competitive pressures and the need to publish. But he said "it's important to me to underline that the mistakes I made weren't for selfish reasons."

The review panel noted Stapel had enjoyed a position of prestige as a professor and head of his department, and that he had access to subsidies and funding for his projects as a result of the fraud.