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The Fraud Who Fooled (Almost) Everyone

It’s now known that Diederik Stapel, the Dutch social psychologist who was suspended by Tilburg University in September, faked dozens of studies and managed not to get caught for years despite his outrageous fabrications. But how, exactly, did he do it?

That question won’t be fully answered for a while—the investigation into the vast fraud is continuing. But a just-released English version of Tilburg’s interim report on Stapel’s deception begins to fill in some of the details of how he manipulated those who worked with him.

This was, according to the report, his modus operandi:

  • Pretending to help fellow researchers

Stapel would chat with colleagues about what they were working on. Nothing unusual there. But then, as luck would have it, he would reveal that he had an old data set that he’d never gotten around to using that “matched the colleague’s needs perfectly.” He turned that data set over, the paper was published, and Stapel was listed as a co-author. None of those colleagues, according to the report, knew that the data were made up.

  • Making it seem plausible

Stapel was savvy enough to create convincing cover stories. The fictitious research he was doing would take “many weeks, or even months” to finish. When asked why other researchers couldn’t contact the high schools where he was conducting some of his research, Stapel explained that it was to “prevent the schools being overrun with similar requests, which would hamper [his] access to them.”

  • Mixing fact and fiction

While apparently Stapel could be “vague” at times about how his research was conducted, he threw in just enough actual details to create some verisimilitude. For instance, details about the curriculum and location of a particular high school were true, though the studies were never conducted and the research assistants who helped him were imaginary.

  • Intimidation

The report describes Stapel as charismatic and well respected. His research papers—like the one about how meat-eaters are supposedly selfish—made a splash with the news media. His success seemed to insulate him from criticism. When a young researcher asked for access to raw data, Stapel accused the researcher of “calling his capacities and experience as a renowned professor into question.” He also made those around him feel lucky to be working with him and bragged about his data. “Be aware that you have gold in your hands,” he told one researcher.

  • Controlling the data

This is probably the most important part of Stapel’s deception. He and he alone was in charge of his data. Others were not allowed access to it. He handled the processing and coding of the data. Graduate students who worked with him were told that “they could make better use of their time for the real scientific work (analyzing and writing).” Likewise, when working with more-senior researchers, Stapel “took personal charge of the ‘data collection’ and provided the outcomes, but not the raw data.” According to the report, “probing questions were usually cut short with an appeal to the trust that Mr. Stapel was entitled to.”

But he didn’t successfully bluff everybody. Three young researchers blew the whistle on Stapel in August, bringing their concerns to the head of the department. In addition, three other young researchers “had previously raised the alarm.” Two professors had suspicions but apparently didn’t come forward. From the report: “The committee concludes that the six young whistle-blowers showed more courage, vigilance, and inquisitiveness than incumbent full professors. ”

While it is becoming clearer how Stapel committed his fraud, the larger question is why. In separate statements, he explained that “I was not able to withstand the pressure to score points, to publish, to always have to be better,” and that he felt “a sense of dismay and shame” but that he was “sincerely committed to the field of social psychology, young researchers, and other colleagues.”

Apparently, he saw no contradiction between that commitment and systematically manufacturing results for years, harming his graduate students and co-authors along the way, and staring down anyone who would dare question him.

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