Hate the player, hate the game?

Two books reviewed in our January 2016 issue.

Ethical Challenges in the Behavioral and Brain Sciences
Robert Sternberg & Susan Fiske (Eds.)
Faking Science: A True Story of Academic Fraud
Diedrik Stapel (translated by Nicholas Brown)

‘Scientists have interests and sometimes they have trouble dealing with them,’ says the antihero of Faking Science as he reflects upon the derailment of his career in social psychology.

In doing so, he brings into view a problem that has also caused other researchers and practitioners before him (and potentially others after him too) to take risks in the way in they carry out their work.

How do they come to engage in – or, alternatively, avoid engaging in – scientific misconduct? This is a question to which both of the volumes reviewed here address themselves; and while they come at it from different directions, they arrive at a similar understanding.

First, Sternberg and Fiske’s expansive collection of case studies, in which psychologists (most in United States academic settings, but the odd one or two from the UK or doing practitioner work) candidly discuss ethical dilemmas in which they have found themselves in the past. The dilemmas range from wayward students, through client confidentiality issues, potential harm to study participants, revelations during study write-ups, and conflicts of interest, to attempts at exploitation and dubious data management practices.

It might be the case that a reader comes to this book expecting every case study to culminate in an obvious solution that was taken up to the benefit of all involved. Not so, as it happens: in some of the cases the dilemma was indeed resolved in a satisfactory manner, or even forestalled; in others, an imperfect solution, or no solution at all, was adopted. In reflecting on these situations, the contributors point to a range of personal and situational factors that create the dilemmas in the first place, and influence the attempts of those involved to find a way through them. The result is a compelling set of stories about psychologists foreseeing trouble, getting into it or escaping from it.

This brings us to the second publication. Faking Science is the English-language version of Ontsporing, in which Diedrik Stapel recounted his misdeeds whilst working at universities in the Netherlands (he was discovered to have fabricated his research studies to such an extent as to render at least 30 publications fraudulent, and to cast doubt on yet other outputs). The original version courted some controversy when it appeared on Dutch bookshelves, the dust having barely settled from the ‘Stapel affair’ at the time. Three years later this translation, available as a free download, provides a wider audience with the opportunity to find out how the author accounted for his actions.

We join the story as the tangled web that Stapel weaved is about to unravel. From that point, Stapel takes us back in time to the start of his career, where we learn about what inspired his academic interests, and then forwards again, where we witness the weaving of that web and the unhappy aftermath of its unravelling. Along the way Stapel throws in a few insights from psychological studies – both others and his own, but helpfully signposting where the latter were based on made-up data – plus the occasional anecdote from his childhood. While that might all sound a little self-indulgent, much of it is quite pertinent to the subject matter of the book, as it provides clues as to what Stapel believes motivated him to engage in scientific misconduct.

The picture that Stapel presents is of someone whose desire for success led to some latent behavioural tendencies coming into play in an unhelpful way. Unchecked either by his own moral restraint, or by social or institutional controls, Stapel’s ‘dark side’ clouded his ethical judgement, as a result of which he crossed the boundary between expediency and plain duplicity in his handling of research data; a movement that he would (eventually) come to regret.

It is here that Faking Science converges with the stories collected by Sternberg and Fiske. The latter too describe interplay between ambition, moral values, prevailing circumstances (such as publication pressure and insecure employment), an understanding of ethical boundaries and the ability of professional peers to hold each other to account for their practice. Indeed, a couple of the case studies there resembled the developmental path of the Stapel affair; hopefully, history will not repeat itself.

Those with an interest in understanding scientific (mis)conduct will find both of these publications an insightful, and perhaps provocative, read. Ethical Challenges in the Behavioral and Brain Sciences in particular would also be a useful source of study material for courses on ethical issues.

(Ethical Challenges…) Cambridge University Press; 2015; Pb £21.99
(Faking Science) Free download from tinyurl.com/pvua9z6 (PDF version); tinyurl.com/ogk4yez (mobile version); tinyurl.com/onuv9yb (epub version)
Reviewed by Denham Phipps who is a Research Fellow at the University of Manchester

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