Friday, 4 November 2011

Please, tell us all what you think!

This is going to just be a quick piece to try and start a discussion. If you're reading this please take a minute and provide some feedback. Ready? Here we go:

In the last two weeks, two really big things have happened in the realm of research science. Well, okay, that's a ridiculous statement. On any given day, hundreds or thousands of really cool things happen in the realm of research science.

Look, if you think I'm exaggerating, it's because you aren't reading the right journals or magazines or blogs or tweets. But I want to talk, briefly, about two very particular things that might just have a very strong effect on our work.

One of them is really cool.

The other one is horrible.

They can both provide a great learning experience for us all.

A little over a week ago, the entire archive of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society was made freely available to the general public. If you don't know it, the Philosophical Transactions is the original name of what became the Proceedings of the Royal Society, arguably, the first, oldest, and longest running scientific journal.

Wonder why I say "arguably"? Ask a French scientist or, you know, offer me a beer and five minutes of listening.

Anyway, I now have a pdf on my desktop allowing me to read the original "A Letter of Benjamin Franklin, Esq; to Mr. Peter Collinson, F. R. S. concerning an Electrical Kite", from 1751.

Another pdf I had to look for right away is the 1671 article by Sir Isaac Newton "containing his new theory" on the relationship between light and colours.

Cool, eh?

What are you going to look up first?

The other piece of big news that I'd like to propose for discussion is the confession this week of Diederik Stapel, PhD, who admitted that he has been falsifying data for most of his 20 year career as a well-respected social psychologist. He has been heavily published, and has supervised more than a dozen PhDs. Worse than all of that, his work has influenced public, private, academic, corporate and medical opinions and actions... ...and it was all based on falsified data.

To frame a selfish question that we could all be asking right now: In this time of anti-scientific naysaying from high offices, how will Stapel's actions effect our prospects, and how should we respond?

Any thoughts?


  1. Someone who can get away with publishing falsified data for years must be working on topics which are simply not of much import. If they were interesting and important, other people would have made a more serious attempt to test them and the fraud would have been discovered sooner. I do remember the paper about increased discrimination against blacks in the presence of rubbish - but honestly, publishing such a paper is a failure of editorial policy at the journal Science - and this is not an isolated event. Actually if the scientific community scrutinizes psychology experiments more carefully now, this might induce psychologists to design better experiments. That would not be a bad outcome.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Chris, and welcome to our blog.
    While appreciate your opinion, I can't help but think that the co-authors and especially the PhD students who worked with Professor Stapel must have taken the work very seriously. I've never met anyone who didn't think their PhD was important... at least at some stage.
    I agree that the folks at Science, and a few other places going back a decade and a half, might just be thinking about asking their submitters to include raw data, or asking their reviewers to validate data sets as well as methodology.
    It seems as though there have been complaints in the past. I'd like to know what happened to those complainants, and what happened to the people who dismissed their concerns.

  3. What happened with Prof. Stapel could well inspire some piece of fiction. Imagine his moral fight when coming to the decision of first forging his data. On the other side, there were of course pressure from supervisors, feelings of inadeguacy and - maybe - a tempter. And then he would silently dive in the misconduct again and again and not hesitate even when abusing of his colleauges' trust. At the dramatic peak, he could use at worst his (undeserved) power to contrast those that in order to defend the truth would have him unmasked. And only last month the tragic character was overwhelmed by the scandal.

    Moral would be: once you experience that you can cheat with no consequences, it is an easy way down.

  4. And now, Valerio, you need only change the names and license the film rights... see you in Hollywood!!