Why should a researcher report their results?

Results at any costWhen researchers cheat

"I'm Diederik Stapel and I was fired in September 2011 because my colleagues found out that I had committed scientific fraud. Not just once, but over a long period of time. That means that I came up with my scientific data and my results myself . And of course that's a sin. The greatest sin that can be committed in science. That's why I was fired six and a half years ago. "

Diederik Stapel is sitting at the kitchen table in his house in the Dutch city of Tilburg as he tells his story. The now 51-year-old social psychologist worked for many years as a scientist at the University of Tilburg.

"I was a professor of social psychology and wrote for several famous scientific journals. I did research and was the dean of the social science faculty."

Results changed if they didn't meet expectations

Stapel's psychological studies were based on questionnaires that he had his subjects fill out after placing them in a certain situation. His studies were always about how people then behave: In a survey he found that they allegedly behave more racist in a littered environment. The study was published in the science magazine Science. Another time, the social psychologist found that women who saw cosmetic products in advertisements would feel uglier. Fashion journalists reported about it.

"I had an idea and then you actually test it by asking people questions, giving them questionnaires or letting them do tasks on the computer. I did that too, but when the results weren't exactly what I expected I changed the results. "

All of the studies were fake. Sometimes he interviewed test persons, but embellished the results. In other cases he hadn't interviewed anyone and instead just made up the results.

In 2011, stacks were exposed. Colleagues had denounced him to the rector of the university because his research had only achieved exceptionally good results in a short period of time. Little meaningful experiments or errors like those made by the other scientists apparently did not exist at Stapel. That seemed too good to be true to my colleagues. The scientist admitted everything - three days later he was out of his job. Although it was all more than six and a half years ago, Stapel's case is still causing a stir in the Dutch science scene.

"Every two months or so, students at a Dutch university email me and ask, 'Hey Diederik, can we invite you to an evening discussion on academic integrity and ethics?' And I always say 'yes' because I believe that I have a social responsibility, and almost without exception your professor or the president of your university will say a few weeks before the event:' Oh no, you are not allowed to speak to Diederik Stapel. '"

It is an absolute exception that a scientist who is suspected of fraud or - like Diederik Stapel - has even been convicted, speaks about it publicly. In Germany, too, cases of scientific fraud are known time and again:

In the 1990s, a German chemist was stripped of his doctorate. A commission had previously tried in vain to repeat its experiments, which were considered groundbreaking at the time. In 2012, a German surgeon resigned from his post at a university clinic after claiming that, as part of a scientific study, he had operated on significantly more patients than was actually the case. In 2014 it became public that a German cardiologist had manipulated data from a heart study. As a punishment, he was not allowed to submit applications for research funds to the German Research Foundation for four years. Today he works as a doctor. Neither gentleman was ready for an interview.

"Omitting a measured value is of course not correct"

What a fraud is is also a question of definition, explains Ulrike Beisiegel. She is Professor of Biochemistry and President of the University of Göttingen:

"Yes, that is indeed difficult because there is a gray area, but I think as soon as you start to change dates or numbers. That can be, if you simply leave out an unsuitable point, then it is very easy That it then turns into a fraud, because omitting a measured value is of course incorrect. Instead, you can state it and put it in brackets or you can write: This measured value was not recorded correctly, there was an incident. Or Of course, too, on the other hand, if you do not sufficiently cite the work of other scientists. For example, if you copy without naming the author. That is called plagiarism. "

The word "plagiarism" is highlighted in a dictionary. (picture alliance / dpa)

Of course, this is not allowed in the German, Dutch or scientific community in any other country. How many cases of scientific fraud there are annually in this country can hardly be answered because there is no central collection point that records all cases in Germany. But …

"... what you can definitely say is that in the last maybe ten or 20 years structures have developed that deal systematically with the detection of such cases and that is why there have been many more cases in recent years become known than ever before. Of course, that does not have to mean that these cases are occurring for the first time today, just that there is a systematic investigation for the first time today. "

Explains Felicitas Heßelmann. The research assistant at the Berlin Institute for Research Information and Quality Assurance was involved in the "Shamed Science" project, which was financed by the Federal Ministry of Research until the end of 2016.

Heßelmann and her colleagues took a look at the measures universities are using to try to prevent fraud - for example with guidelines for scientific work or by repeating experiments by other scientists. They then conducted interviews with journal editors and ombudspersons. The latter are university professors who act as educators and mediators in cases of potential fraud. Conclusion: Despite these structures, much remains in the dark.

"The ombudspersons are of course confidants. They often report to the Presidium like this: Yes, I've had so and so many cases, but no details. And the individual universities don't have to report this to anyone."

The USA is already taking a more rigid approach to potential fraudsters in some areas.

"Some countries, for example, also have such a national organization. For example, in the USA there is the Office of Research Integrity, which is responsible for all research projects funded by the US Department of Health, mainly in the area of ​​life sciences, biomedical research . "

"If you make mistakes, you just skip them"

All studies from the life sciences and biomedicine are checked again for plausibility here. This at least makes counterfeiting more difficult. If a researcher's fraud comes to light, his scientific career is usually over, and his colleagues' reputation is usually ruined forever. Anyone who manipulates and falsifies is putting a lot at risk - and of course researchers know that. The Dutch social psychologist Diederik Stapel explains very calmly how it came about that he nevertheless risked his scientific career:

"I think it was a gradual process. When you are a student, you learn how to do real scientific work. You learn something about ethics and methods and that you always have to report everything that you are very precise and clear and precise about your hypothesis But when you start doing a PhD and do real research, you learn that science can also be pragmatic. It's very boring and it's a lot of work and almost impossible to report on everything that happens in your experiments. So you let Put things away and if you make mistakes you just skip them. So you don't report anything anymore. "

Omitting and skipping was Stack's entry into the fraud. Back then, he says, he didn't think anything of it to himself. Many of his colleagues worked like this, he claims. But at some point - he admits - simply omitting data would no longer have been enough:

"And then I went on by changing the data. I made a five out of a three, and made a four out of a two. That's how I got the results I wanted. And that ended up being me doing the experiment no longer carried out, but had a theory and completely falsified the data. "

Diederik Stapel published his invented results on the behavior of people in different situations in respected specialist journals. The social psychologist was invited to international congresses to speak about it. His colleagues admired him for his theses, which he was always able to substantiate. Stack was on the road to success.

The retired medical doctor and psychologist from the University of Kiel, Manfred Müller, has himself twice in his career dealt with colleagues who had falsified data. He condemns the behavior of these colleagues, but Müller sees one reason why researchers lie and cheat in the science system itself:

"And a driving force behind scientific misconduct lies in the fact that science is not science in itself, but science today is linked to money, the promotion of science. And this money is now also a basic requirement for the work of scientists themselves, but also for the universities. So in a certain way I have to raise more and more money. And how do I do that? By publishing more and more. That is the profit in science, yes? So and that is an unpleasant pressure, the on the system. "

Because money from research institutions or ministries in science is primarily for successful researchers and outstanding results.

"It's not possible that after two years I might stand up and say: I've been researching for two years and not that much has come out, I was wrong in my assumption, so unfortunately I have to say. Well, that's not today more planned. When you go to a scientific congress, you only hear great lectures. We are all successful. "

Today researchers can hardly afford failure and failure in the literal sense of the word. They are part of it. And assumptions that turn out to be wrong can also advance a discipline. According to Manfred Müller, science, which was once considered a haven for ideas, experiments and mind games, has become an industry in which money often plays the leading role. Only those who raise money in the long term with successful research and publications have a chance of a career. It was the same with Diederik Stapel.

"There is a lot of pressure to get results published in a journal. If you don't tell a straightforward story, you won't get published in the best journals. But if you want to make a career, you're going to have to publish in the best journals, because only on this way you get a certain status and a good job so that you can then buy a house ... "

His research also brought stacks to the media. Again and again he was a sought-after interview partner on the topics of racism, prejudice or the effect of advertising: for Spiegel Online, the New York Times or the Neue Zürcher Zeitung. Manfred Müller believes that the close-knit reporting that exists today about interesting research results is not always beneficial for science.

"Suddenly you have a significance"

"Science today has a completely different public perception. And when something is newly discovered, it is immediately in the media, and if you are the scientist in charge, you are not - yes, you cannot get rid of it completely so suddenly has a meaning and has to deal with it somehow and is under pressure to be meaningful again next time. So I think it's no one to blame. It's just a question that one says that when dealing with science whether you make it a sensation or whether you leave it where it is: first in science and not immediately in the public. "

Christoph Schrader is a graduate physicist and has been working as a science journalist for almost 30 years, including for the Süddeutsche Zeitung. He does not think that scientists have the right to withhold results for the time being:

"Well, it is publicly funded research and that they want to hold back until they are sure, I find that honorable, but unacceptable. So everyone has to take their own responsibility and the responsibility of the science journalist is also to be Think about it: Can that be and I am sure? You should ask people who are also familiar with the subject, who are independent and who then also pursue it. If they say: 'Well, is that true?' Then you should take it seriously. "

According to the retired Kiel medical professor Manfred Müller, who used to deal with cases of fraud in his colleagues' circle, the fact that scientists sometimes crave media attention can also be seen in the fact that articles that have appeared in scientific journals are later withdrawn.

"Well, the retraction numbers are already known and of course they are now different for the various newspapers: And they are highest for the newspapers that have the highest reputation. So if you take Nature, Science in the field of biomedicine, that is The magazines that have the highest retraction rates. So that means that many of the articles that appear there are also knitted with a hot needle and you may then see more often in retrospect, six months later: 'Oh man, something wasn't there right and I may have to ... '- and then asks the authors and then the authors may have to say:' No, we're sorry. Well, we were wrong, there were mistakes, we will withdraw it. '"

Science journalist Schrader has this thought in the back of his mind in his work that everything he reads in a specialist journal doesn't always have to be right:

"That matters, it should definitely play a role. Extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence. But journalists naturally tend to make it big the first time such a feat is mentioned. So that's where journalists can help make it happen becomes a problem, but of course they are not the cause of the problem. "

Ulrike Beisiegel, President of the University of Göttingen, has helped to further develop the guidelines for good scientific work of the German Research Foundation in this country. Among other things, it stipulates that scientific data must be stored in such a way that they can be traced to third parties. This is to prevent fraud. Every scientist should feel committed to these guidelines in his work. In addition to the guidelines, every university that wants to apply for research funding from the DFG needs an ombudsperson:

"So that the young people and also the older people, that is, someone who sees that something is not going right, can turn to a permanent position, that is the office of the ombudsman system, and that is where you will definitely be advised and received then went on when there was a need. "

"The system is very fragile"

The problem: The post of ombudsperson is an unpaid honorary position that the professors have in addition to their regular duties. Whether and how far you pursue suspected fraud depends to a large extent on your personal commitment. In addition, many scientists think twice about whether they want to denigrate a colleague or even a superior. Because one day it could be to her own disadvantage, Ulrike Beisiegel knows.

"The interdependencies in the scientific system are an important point, and above all the dependencies and the hierarchy. That means that the doctoral students naturally have no courage to say: My doctoral supervisor did something wrong here. Or maybe quoted or wrongly not quoted or authorship is an important question. This means that the system is very prone to not pointing out wrongdoing due to its hierarchy and its complexity. "

In the case of Diederik Stapel, the Dutch social psychologist, it was precisely these young scientists who finally dared, reported him to the university management in Tilburg and arranged for his dismissal. Criminal proceedings were discontinued in mid-2013 because he had used research funds not for personal purposes but to train his doctoral students. Stapel only had to do 120 hours of community service.

"The newspapers printed photos of me and the Dutch television reported, so I hid here at home. My brother was living in Hungary at the time, so I went to Budapest for a few weeks. I collapsed, I crashed, I got very depressed, I wanted to commit suicide, I hated myself. That's why I sought therapeutic help. I did very intensive therapy that actually lasted several years. "

To this day, more than six years later, people speak to him on the street because they know his photo from the media. It is clear that he would never be able to return to science. The 51-year-old has not found a permanent job outside of science either. Whenever he applies and people find out who it is, he receives a rejection.