A lot on his plate

Ella Rhodes reports on the latest data scandal to hit psychological research.

Critics have been finding increasing numbers of anomalies in the research of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, which specialises in changing eating and drinking behaviours. Professor Brian Wansink’s lab is known for its media-friendly results and was given a $5.5 million grant from the US Department of Agriculture to support his Smarter Lunchroom programme, which is now used in more than 30,000 schools in the country.

Wansink’s troubles started late last year after he posted a blog piece titled ‘The Grad Student Who Never Said No’ which seemed to support questionable research practices such as ‘p-hacking’. He described giving a graduate student the data set from a study on eating behaviour at an all-you-can-eat buffet: ‘I gave her a data set of a self-funded, failed study which had null results… I said, "This cost us a lot of time and our own money to collect.  There's got to be something here we can salvage because it's a cool (rich & unique) data set.”’

This data set was used in four later papers and, largely thanks to the above blog post, their results have come under increased scrutiny. Nick Brown, a graduate student at the University of Groningen, and James Heathers (Northeastern University) developed Granularity-Related Inconsistency of Means (GRIM), a mathematical approach which can distinguish whether averages reported in journal articles are consistent with sample sizes and items within a study. Jordan Anaya, an independent researcher, later turned GRIM into a computer programme to easily check papers for possible errors. He used this method to look through Wansink’s work and found around 150 inconsistencies across the four papers written using the buffet data set. He, Brown, and Tim van der Zee, a graduate student (Leiden University) published the paper ‘Statistical heartburn: An attempt to digest four pizza publications from the Cornell Food and Brand Lab’.

Writing on his blog van der Zee said that he had found ‘34 publications from Wansink which are alleged to contain minor to very serious issues’, while Anaya has uncovered multiple inconsistencies in the papers (usually his own) Wansink cites. Anaya went as far as to write on his blog: ‘If you were to go into the lab and create someone that perfectly embodied all the problems science is currently facing you couldn’t do better than Brian Wansink.’

In February, Wansink announced ‘a full review of studies in question, preparing comprehensive data which will be shared and establishing new standards for future operations at the lab which will include how we respond to requests for research information’. An updated statement in March noted: ‘Since this review work [on the four disputed papers] began in mid-February, a few new claims about my research have been made that are not quite as substantial, and can be responded to much more quickly. Distilled, I have been accused of reusing portions of my own work in later papers on the same or related topics. The observation is, of course, true… In every instance, I reprised portions of my earlier work to underscore or expand on its conclusions, and to continue to advance this field of research pioneered by the Food and Brand Lab that is relied upon by people around the world to lead healthier and happier lives.’

We contacted Cornell University for a comment on whether the lab would be formally investigated but received no reply.

-       For an in-depth review of the case, including an interview with Wansink, see Tom Bartlett’s article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. For more on the 'methodological crisis' which has hit psychology in recent years, read our report and watch the video.

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