"Two years ago, Dutch science fraudster Diederik Stapel published a book, Ontsporing [“Derailment”], describing how he became one of the world’s leading social psychologists, before falling from grace when it emerged that he’d fabricated the data in dozens of papers. Stapel wrote Ontsporing in Dutch, but now his story has been translated into English, under the title of Faking Science – thanks to the efforts of Nick Brown."
After years of balancing on the outer limits [of scientific integrity], the grey became darker and darker until it was black, and I fell off the edge into the abyss. I’d been having trouble with my experiments for some time. Even with my various “grey” methods for “improving” the data [i.e. ‘QRPs‘], I wasn’t able to get the results the way I wanted them. I couldn’t resist the temptation to go a step further. I wanted it so badly. I wanted to belong, to be part of the action, to score.
I really, really wanted to be really, really good. I wanted to be published in the best journals and speak in the largest room at conferences. I wanted people to hang on my every word as I headed for coffee or lunch after delivering a lecture.
I felt very alone. I was alone in my tastefully furnished office at the University of Groningen. I’d taken extra care when closing the door, and made my desk extra tidy. Everything had to be neat and orderly. No mess.I opened the file with the data that I had entered and changed an unexpected 2 into a 4; then, a little further along, I changed a 3 into a 5. It didn’t feel right. I looked around me nervously. The data danced in front of my eyes. When the results are just not quite what you’d so badly hoped for; when you know that that hope is based on a thorough analysis of the literature; when this is your third experiment on this subject and the first two worked great; when you know that there are other people doing similar research elsewhere who are getting good results; then, surely, you’re entitled to adjust the results just a little?…
No. I clicked on “Undo Typing.” And again. I felt very alone. I didn’t want this. I’d worked so hard. I’d done everything I could and it just hadn’t quite worked out the way I’d expected. It just wasn’t quite how everyone could see that it logically had to be. I looked at the door of my office. It was still closed. I looked out the window. It was dark outside. “Redo Typing.” And again. For a moment I had the feeling that someone was standing behind me. I turned round slowly, fearfully. There was nobody there. I looked at the array of data and made a few mouse clicks to tell the computer to run the statistical analyses. When I saw the results, the world had become logical again. I saw what I’d imagined. I felt relieved, but my heart was heavy. This was great, but at the same time it was very wrong.
Retraction Watch is an interesting study of the fragility of human morality – high functioning people who step into the "grey," and then it gets "darker and darker." And it’s almost always "loners" doing the fabrication – I presume looking over their shoulders. This story attracted my attention at a time when I’ve been thinking about the issue of Data Transparency in Clinical Trials and all the distorted Clinical Trial reports strewn about in our medical literature. In Ben Goldacre’s now famous 2012 TED Talk, he mentioned that industry-funded Clinical Trials are better conducted than many independent trials. That was anti-intuitive to me when I first heard it, but I have to admit that now, having looked a a lot of trials, I reluctantly agree. There are a number of trials where the design is biased [wrong dosing of comparators, for example], but I haven’t run across fabrication of data – the kind of thing that’s common in the examples on Retraction Watch. The trouble comes after the blind gets broken. Negative studies go unpublished. And often, small [and trivial] effects are amplified with a whole host of "grey" techniques [that carefully stay out of the "black"].
What I’m implying [because I apparently don’t know how to say it clearly] is that the widespread embellishment and deceit seen in the Clinical Trial publications is categorically different from the cases we see in the people who show up on Retraction Watch. Each instance in a Clinical Trial includes the involvement of multiple people: guest authors, statisticians, scientists, medical writers, marketeers, legal consultants, CEOs, etc. And there’s an intentionality in staying "in the grey rather than the black." It is a widespread practice, a culture, with similar methods showing up from seemingly independent groups who are otherwise in competition. And throughout this struggle over Data Transparency, the individual companies and their collective [PhRMA] are fighting to hold onto as much control of data access as they can muster. The only reason I can think of for their dogged persistence is to maintain the latitude for embellishment and deceit in the future – as if it is potentially an essential element.