The Washington Post tried to spin the embarrassing news of scientific fraud overseen by an influential member of the academic community in a extremely prestigious journal (Science) today into a win by stating “the scientific process worked. In fact, those of us who teach undergraduates how to do science had just been handed a valuable story that we can tell in the classroom for years.”

A glass-half-full view of academic fraud in political science – The Washington Post A glass-half-full view of academic fraud in political science – The Washington Post Wednesday was interesting for political scientists. Our social media feeds were full of angst in response to the news that a very influential member of our discipline had requested a retraction of a very widely reported finding published by a very prestigious journal on which he had been a co-author. The data upon which the finding rested appear to have been fraudulently produced. Thus, a process of shaming has begun. It is a necessary process. Yet it misses a very important part of the story: science actually worked.

Not much political science research gets major coverage in outlets like Bloomberg, The Washington Post and “This American Life.” The now retracted finding did (here, here, and here), and that is partly because it was published in a journal that all scientists — not just social scientists — read. A retraction of an article published in such an outlet is major scientific news, and to the best of my knowledge, no political science article has ever been retracted from such a publication. And because some U.S. lawmakers oppose funding for political science research, people are particularly concerned that this “black eye” will contribute to such critiques.

Unfortunately, scientists turn out to be human beings, which is to say some of us are just as likely to succumb to temptation (cheat, commit fraud, etc.) as any other large collection of human beings. Indeed, we have norms against such behavior precisely because such behavior is tempting. Were it not, or were we a collection of ethically pure humans, the norms would be unnecessary.

Hearing that scientists are no better or worse than other collections of humanity, one might wonder whether the results reported in scientific journals are trustworthy. This is why transparency is so important: making publicly available all of the information required to replicate the research. And the retraction that has gotten everyone’s attention is the outcome of the transparency required by scientific journals.

First of all,  oversight by a hightly regarded professional was severely lacking. The study included 9507 respondents who were each supposedly paid $10 each, plus $2 for a referral and $5 more for the follow up surveys. Dr. Donald Green, a big deal in political science circles was Michael Lacour’s advisor and evidently found nothing odd about a graduate student securing funding to the tune of at least 95K? (Turns out-there was no funding)   Also lesser-know researchers than professor Green, found the data to be “too perfect” and began to ask questions. Did Dr Green even look at the raw data and if not, why?

Second of all, failure of the peer review process in a prestigious journal is disturbing. Peer reviews are the front line against fraud. Let’s be frank replicating a study isn’t half as fun as doing new innovative research and so the vast majority of studies will never be replicated. It seems to me highly likely that if you manage to slip past the peer review process, chances are good that your dirty deed will never get exposed. This is akin to crossing the southern U.S.border, where once past the border patrol you are mostly home free.

The Post author would like you to believe that the integrity of science  is exceptionally strong. In reality however things are much worse than the half-full analogy shared by the Post. As recently as this past March, the Post showed a much different story about the state of academic integrity with the following story.

Major publisher retracts 43 scientific papers amid wider fake peer-review scandal A major publisher of scholarly medical and science articles has retracted 43 papers because of “fabricated” peer reviews amid signs of a broader fake peer review racket affecting many more publications.

The publisher is BioMed Central, based in the United Kingdom, which puts out 277 peer-reviewed journals. A partial list of the retracted articles suggests most of them were written by scholars at universities in China. But Jigisha Patel, associate editorial director for research integrity at BioMed Central, said it’s not “a China problem. We get a lot of robust research of China. We see this as a broader problem of how scientists are judged.”

Meanwhile, the Committee on Publication Ethics, a multidisciplinary group that includes more than 9,000 journal editors, issued a statement suggesting a much broader potential problem. The committee, it said, “has become aware of systematic, inappropriate attempts to manipulate the peer review processes of several journals across different publishers.” Those journals are now reviewing manuscripts to determine how many may need to be retracted, it said.

Peer review is the vetting process designed to guarantee the integrity of scholarly articles by having experts read them and approve or disapprove them for publication. With researchers increasingly desperate for recognition, citations and professional advancement, the whole peer-review system has come under scrutiny in recent years for a host of flaws and irregularities, ranging from lackadaisical reviewing to cronyism to outright fraud.

“The problem of fake peer reviewers is affecting the whole of academic journal publishing and we are among the ranks of publishers hit by this type of fraud,” Patel of BioMed’s ethics group wrote in November. “The spectrum of ‘fakery’ has ranged from authors suggesting their friends who agree in advance to provide a positive review, to elaborate peer review circles where a group of authors agree to peer review each others’ manuscripts, to impersonating real people, and to generating completely fictitious characters. From what we have discovered amongst our journals, it appears to have reached a higher level of sophistication. The pattern we have found, where there is no apparent connection between the authors but similarities between the suggested reviewers, suggests that a third party could be behind this sophisticated fraud.”

So can we conclude from these two articles that those who are committing these academic sins are propagandists attempting to sway the masses with fraudulent science? No, more research is needed for that.  Following the grant money however will usually reveal significant insights as to whether the fraud is simply the brainchild of a lone academic bent on climbing the ladder and desperate for published articles or a financed plan through grant money to influences masses of people in predetermined directions. (See EPA study masked as a independent peer reviewed study) In this case the unusually large size of the grant purportedly secured by a grad student should have caused some warning bells to go off.

“Science” is the indisputable God-term that cannot be challenged or assailed. “Settled science says” is the mantra of the uber-propagandist who insists that dialogue and critiques be silenced. True science is never truly settled.

Here’s the news that shockingly does not get reported in the American Media about global manipulation of climate data . Hear the crickets yup that is our news media doing their job making sure that anything upsetting to the narrative of climate change be memory holed.

Never be bullied by the propagandist as he gets all indignant that the science is unassailable and …that is is settled.

See Science as Propaganda Lesson #1 for more insights

Micheal Winston
Micheal Winston

PropagandaGuard was created for the purpose of alerting citizens to the ever present dangers of propaganda, helping them to recognize and protect themselves and families from its corrupting effects. You cannot protect yourself from things which you are not aware. Understanding does not stem from a simple dictionary or wikipedia definition. In the end, the question you must answer is...Have you made your way out of the Matrix?