Psychology, Research, and Ethics

For my blog post this week, I looked at the case of David Anderson. ORI found that David had tampered with the data shown in figures in several published papers. Specifically, he removed outliers or replaced them with mean values in order to make his results match up with his hypotheses. It appears that he did this in 4 papers over the course of 2-3 years. His work was done while he was a graduate student in Oregon and being supported by two R01 grants from NIH and NIMH. As punishment, David’s work has to be supervised, he has to certify the legitimacy of any future work, he must retract his published papers containing the fabricated figures, and he cannot serve in an advisory capacity (e.g., reviewing articles). This punishment began in June 2015 and will remain in place until June of next year.

Upon consulting the American Psychological Association ethics code, I see that David’s violation is addressed in two different places, Section 5.01 (“Avoidance of False or Deceptive Statements”) and 8.10 (“Reporting Research Results”). The code is clear that psychologists (and psychology students, like David) are not to fabricate data in any way, and that they are to retract publications that they discover contain “significant errors” as soon as they realize the mistake. The code also clearly states that psychologists may not make “false, deceptive, or fraudulent” statements concerning their research or its results. In my program, we have an entire course on ethics and are expected to review the code in its entirety at several points (e.g., beginning practicum). I also reviewed the code and discussed it as an undergraduate psychology major. So, if David’s education was anything like mine, he really had no excuse for his unethical behavior!

I did think it was interesting that David’s was the only psychology-related violation I could find in the list of ORI case summaries. I wonder if perhaps it is more difficult or complicated to try to replicate our data, as opposed to data from the natural or biomedical sciences, because of the complexities of psychological variables and individual differences. Alternatively, perhaps there is more oversight before the publication stage is reached, such that fabrications and other types of ethical misconduct are caught by supervisors and committee members in earlier stages of the process.

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