Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Fifty Shades of Fraudulent Data


Cheating in science. It happens. Not on the AP physics exam, but in the research lab. The guys over at Retraction Watch are not surprised. David Freedman, author of Wrong: Why experts keep failing us, is not surprised. The folks in the Office of Research Integrity are not surprised.

No I didn't make that last one up. Office of Research Integrity. The data police. In case you missed it, there's a federal office dedicated to snooping out suspicious scientific evidence. Been around since 1994. Think of it as  CSI minus the tight abs and bazillion-dollar touch screens. Instead of drug dealers and jilted lovers, the ORI sleuths catch naughty scientists. If they only carried handcuffs.

It turns out cheating is on the rise or at least appears to be on the rise. At this point it's not clear if more scientists are playing fast and loose with the numbers or if there are more people and computers watching out for cheaters these days. Apparently even you or I could download software to spot fudged data. I know, clear some time on your calendar next week. Laundry, bills, fake effect sizes.

So what do the data sleuths do? Oh they can find you and your deleted files. Don't even try to doctor that graph. They can detect questionable dots and bumps in your images faster than Anna Wintour working on the September Issue. They got mad Photoshop skills. They can convert those data points from that fishy bar graph into a spreadsheet and compare it to your so-called original data faster than you can update your curriculum vitae. Don't even think of lifting any passages from another journal article either. They got plagarism-detection software too. Itheniticate.com.

If your Tivo died, check out more "tricks of the trade" in the ORI's Report on Research Compliance but don't let the snooze-inducing title fool you. It's juicy.

Very.

Deceit. Revenge. Jealousy. It's all here. Or at the very least implied. Take it from John Dahlberg, director of the ORI's Division of Investigative Oversight who describes how the crimes, rather, cases unfold:
Yet truthfulness comes in shades of “gray,” Dahlberg said. “There are cases in which the complainant them- selves may have been involved in the misconduct. There are a lot of cases we’ve had historically where people were collaborators for years, their relationship falls apart for one reason or another, and all of a sudden they are accusing each other of misconduct, and it turns out they are both right,” Dahlberg said.

Shades of gray? Oh no he di-int.

If they added a few blind gossip items to their website I'd be all over it.

An assistant biochemistry professor in that over-rated research institution was overheard bad-mouthing his senior colleague's just-published, much-hyped study in that first-tier journal...

The ORI is missing out here. Check out the Case Summaries (i.e. police blotter). Do you recognize anyone? I need photos and institutions next to those names, please. That Twitter handle needs a make-over too.

@HHS_ORI? I'm surprised 875 people bothered to follow you.

I have some suggestions:

@DataCops

@BadDataRUS

@FiftyShadesofData

No discussion of sloppy, unethical, specious or otherwise suspect data would be complete without mention of our old friend, Doctor Andrew Wakefield. NPR's All Things Considered story on science and cheating last week jumped on that train wreck only after mentioning the completely screwed up South Korean stem cell researcher.

As many of you know, whenever Mr. Wakefield makes an appearance, no matter how large a mention he gets, you can bet someone will post a ridiculous anti-vaccine remark followed by a defense of the autism quack in the comments section in 3...2...1. I refuse to reprint any of it. Read the mess if you must but then remedy it with an articulate discussion of the botched argument that recent events appear to exonerate Mr. Wakefield. Like this  post by Orac on Respectable Insolence at Science Blogs.

FYI: My dissertation and thus graduate school experience was prolonged due to a woman who falsified more than five studies, massaged at least one more. I was forced to trash my first dissertation proposal as it was based in no small part on her work and protocols on perceived discrimination/social judgement. She was a hot new thing at Harvard, the It Girl of Social Psychology. Met her at some conference. We exchanged a few emails about her methodology. Yes! If I only knew then....I wonder where she is now. Karen Ruggiero, read it and weep for my lost patience and lost year in graduate school hell.


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