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Is There a Boom in Research Dishonesty?

Or do some academics just feel sure they won’t get caught? Or that, if they do, it somehow doesn’t matter?

What to make of this news stream?

● Distinguished Professor Francesca Gino of Harvard Business School was recently accused by other academics of falsifying data in a number of studies, including one on dishonesty, where she was a co-author,

Professors Joseph Simmons, Uri Simonsohn and Leif Nelson of University of Pennsylvania, Escade Business School in Spain, and University of California, Berkeley, respectively, accused Gino of the fraud on their blog Data Colada.

“Specifically, we wrote a report about four studies for which we accumulated the strongest evidence of fraud,” they wrote, stating they shared their concerns with Harvard Business School.

Therese Joffre,Harvard ethics professor allegedly fabricated multiple behavioral science studies” at The College Fix, June 28, 2023

Gino, currently on administrative leave, is also the author of Rebel Talent: Why It Pays to Break the Rules at Work and in Life (2018): From the blurb: “Award-winning Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino shows us why the most successful among us break the rules, and how rebellion brings joy and meaning into our lives.” Here are the details at Data Colada.

● Another of the authors of the dishonesty paper, the well-known Dan Ariely of Duke University, author of The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone-Especially Ourselves (Harper 2012), has also been accused by the other authors of providing fraudulent data:

Behavioral scientists Leif Nelson and Joseph Simmons, who exposed the apparent fraud via their blog Data Colada together with their colleague Uri Simonsohn, say a thorough, transparent investigation is needed. But given other universities’ past reluctance to investigate their own researchers, they are skeptical that Duke will conduct one. That may leave Ariely’s supporters insisting he is innocent and detractors assuming he is guilty, Nelson says. “No one knows. And that’s terrible.”

Cathleen O’Grady, “Fraudulent data raise questions about superstar honesty researcher” at Science (August 24, 2021)

● Come to think of it, a similar situation arose over a decade ago. Harvard’s Marc Hauser, a principal investigator at the Cognitive Evolution Laboratory was famous and popular for his research claims that “the foundations of language and morality are hardwired into the brains of humans and our kin.” But he found himself in hot water in 2010 because “lab workers observed huge discrepancies between his descriptions of monkey behavior and the experimental results captured on video.

On Aug. 10, the Boston Globe reported the psychology professor was taking a one-year leave of absence after a three-year internal investigation found evidence of scientific misconduct in his lab. Days later, Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Michael D. Smith confirmed that a committee found Hauser “solely responsible” for eight instances of misconduct—three of which were published studies that needed to be retracted or corrected to remove unsupported findings.

Eric P. Newcomer and Elyssa A. L. Spitzer, “Marc Hauser’s Fall From Grace” at The Harvard Crimson (September 4, 2010)

Hauser resigned from Harvard in 2011 in the wake.

As it happens, he was working on a book as the story broke: Evilicious. Apparently the book was originally to be published by Viking, with the subtitle “Why We Evolved a Taste for Being Bad” but Viking dumped it, post-scandal, in 2012. Hauser later self-published it as Evilicious: Cruelty = Desire + Denial (CreateSpace, 2013). It was endorsed by (among others) some oft-quoted science celebs:

Noam Chomsky “an entertaining and compassionate essay..” Robert Trivers “Highly ambitious, relentless in its logic” Nicholas Wade ““What Steven Pinker has done for violence, Marc Hauser has achieved with evil – this book brings the light of science to illumine the heart of darkness.” Michael Shermer “Every Congressman, Senator, and journalist voting or writing on what to do about violence should read this book first.”

Many Harvardites found the accusations against Hauser hard to believe:

As Hauser faces federal inquiry, many of his former co-authors, graduate students, and undergraduate advisees struggle to comprehend how the man they knew as a prolific researcher, skilled communicator, and heavyweight in the field of cognitive psychology became enmeshed in scandal.

Eric P. Newcomer and Elyssa A. L. Spitzer, “Marc Hauser’s Fall From Grace” at The Harvard Crimson (September 4, 2010)

But perhaps Ariely and at least some of his colleagues would take a more ambivalent view than theirs, if we are to judge by the abstract of a recent paper:

People like to think of themselves as honest. However, dishonesty pays—and it often pays well. How do people resolve this tension? This research shows that people behave dishonestly enough to profit but honestly enough to delude themselves of their own integrity. A little bit of dishonesty gives a taste of profit without spoiling a positive self-view. Two mechanisms allow for such self-concept maintenance: inattention to moral standards and categorization malleability. Six experiments support the authors’ theory of self-concept maintenance and offer practical applications for curbing dishonesty in everyday life. – Mazar, N., Amir, O., & Ariely, D. (2008). The Dishonesty of Honest People: A Theory of Self-Concept Maintenance. Journal of Marketing Research, 45(6), 633–644. https://doi.org/10.1509/jmkr.45.6.633

Here’s a thought: Could seeing morality in purely materialist/naturalist terms, as above, makes it all seem like a game? Then, when dishonesty (or whatever) blows a hole in the system, the researcher finds that colleagues, unlike those human or monkey study subjects, are very old-fashioned about cheating… A bible belt without the Bible could be a really scary place.

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Human Soul: What Neuroscience Shows Us about the Brain, the Mind, and the Difference Between the Two (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Is There a Boom in Research Dishonesty?