Friday, November 4, 2011

On Publishing, Perishing, and Post-Docing: A Reaction to Diederik Stapel's Confession

One reason I started this blog was as an outlet for my writing. I've always loved writing, and often considered it for a career (in those fleeting moments when I was really proud of something I had written and thought, "Yeah, I can do this forever"). I was constantly penning short stories, creating characters and writing notes to my friends in which they played a prominent role (or sometimes were the authors of the notes themselves). I've written many plays: one acts, two acts, I even had the outline of a three act modern tragedy that I still think of going back to - my Citizen Kane or Death of a Salesman (yes, I know I'm being overly dramatic: as a formerly theatre person, I have the flair for drama, and as a psychology person, I'm painfully self-aware of that and all my other traits).

Of course, I changed my major in the middle of my first semester at college, from theatre to psychology, not realizing that, if I thought getting published as a fiction writer was tough, it was nothing compared to getting published as a psychology researcher. Publish or perish is the expression in my field, and it is accurate. Getting the best jobs, getting research funding, it all depends on having a strong publication record. And with more people earning higher degrees now, there's even more competition. This is one reason the number of PhDs going into post-doc positions has also increased recently; grad school alone is no longer enough to prepare most people for the most attractive research and academic positions.

My number one goal in my post-doc is to publish as much as I possibly can. I even submitted a paper today. But I can't rest on my laurels, because I've got 5 other papers in various stages of preparation. Though my most recent reviews may still sting (and I'm not alone - there's actually a group on Facebook devoted to Reviewer 2, often the most matter-of-fact and even rude of the group) I can't let it traumatize me for too long, because there are more studies to perform, more data to analyze, more papers to write.

That's why when I read an article in the New York Times about a prominent psychology researcher who admitted that he massaged data, made up findings, and even wrote up studies that were never actually performed, and published it all in prominent journals, I was a bit annoyed. Am I bitter that while I was dealing with snide reviewers insulting my intelligence, research methods knowledge, and mother, this guy was fabricating data, falsifying methodology, and just plain making whole studies up (and getting rewarded for it, albeit not purposefully)? In a word: yes. But, no matter how tough the publishing world was, the possibility of doing what this guy did was never even an option. It's not that I thought this sort of thing doesn't happen; we all know it does, just as we know there are students who hire people to take the SATs or write their theses for them.

I know I'm not the only one who can say that this wouldn't be one of my answers to the difficulty of publishing in this field, and it's not because of a lack of creativity. Whenever we write research proposals, we have already have to write the introduction/background and methodology sections; we sometimes have to write an expected results section. Make that "expected" part disappear, add some statistics, illustrative quotes, whatever, then finish with a discussion/conclusion and voila! Made up study. And if you're in a field or at an institution where it's normal for someone to conduct and write up a study all by his- or herself, who will ever find out?

Well, apparently someone did, because this guy was caught and confessed, and the whole thing was written up in the New York Times. You can perhaps understand his motivation, and there are surely countless other researchers who have done the same thing and never got caught. And if you're a bit sly about it, your chances of getting caught will likely go down further. So what makes the people who would never do such a thing different?

Anyone who has taken an introductory philosophy class - or who has seen the movie Election - can tell you the difference between morals and ethics. For those who fall in neither of those groups: Morals are notions about what is right and what is wrong. Ethics often refers to the moral code of a particular group, and it sometimes is used to describe what is considered right and wrong at someone's job or within a certain field. That is, if we say a study was conducted ethically, we mean generally that it was performed in a way to minimize unnecessary harm, but more specifically, we mean that an overseeing body examined it and decided it abided by the rules established by some even higher-up overseeing body. Psychological ethics clearly say that falsifying data is wrong; it's unambiguously stated. Stapel can't plead ignorance here.

Sorry, my moral compass appears to be broken today.  I'll have to get back to you tomorrow.
But not everyone avoids doing something because it's wrong. People are at different stages in their moral development; for some the possibility of getting caught is their deterrent. One of the most well-known theorists on moral reasoning is Kohlberg, who (while a post-doc at University of Chicago) began developing a taxonomy of six developmental stages. The first two stages apply to children; in the first stage, people are motivated by seeking pleasure and avoiding punishment, and determine morality by what an action gets them in return. Similarly, stage 2 individuals are driven by self-interest and in actions that further their own goals, needs, etc.; these people behave morally toward others when it also benefits them. 

As we move into adolescence and adulthood, we also move into stages 3 and 4. In stage 3, people begin fulfilling societal roles, and behave in ways that conform to others' expectations; it seems the motivating principle here is they, as in "what would they think?" In stage 4, morality is based on legality. Finally, some lucky few move to stages 5 and 6, which Kohlberg considered the highest levels of morality. These individuals are no longer motivated by pleasing others, what is legal/illegal, or even self-interest; instead, they develop universal principles of what is right and wrong, and seek to enforce those principles, even if it means breaking the law or sacrificing their own needs.

But perhaps what it really comes down to is why one became a scientist at all. I like to think I went into this field because I was good at it, but then there are other things I'm good at (perhaps things I'm even better at than this), some that I could have potentially built a career around. I find the field to be challenging, but once again, there are other interesting and challenging fields I could have pursued. As cheesy as it sounds, I really want to make the world a better place and I see my field as one approach to reaching that goal. I'm sure Diederik Stapel had similar reasons for going into this field. Somewhere along the way, that motivation got lost, or at least overpowered by the drive to publish (or perish).

How can we keep people from getting to this point? How can we reward scientific integrity, even if it means fewer publications and a less attractive CV? And most importantly, how can we verify a researcher's findings are valid?

Thoughtfully yours,

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